Staff shortages, a secondary concern

Reversing the growing lack of teachers is going to be a long, painful process. Stephen Pritchard reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Those who can do, do, those who cannot, teach. The expression, although trite, sounds harmless enough. The problem in England and Wales is that, doers or not, there are simply not enough people who want to teach.

The problem is most acute in demand for initial teacher training. According to the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), applications for postgraduate places to train as a secondary maths teacher were down by more than a quarter on May 1997 figures, science and geography by about 20 per cent and modern languages by more than 10 per cent. Only information technology and PE saw applications increase.

The situation looks worse still when the TTA's own recruitment targets are taken into account. This year, the agency's target for maths PGCE applications is 1,783, against just 720 actual applicants. Science faces a shortfall of 974 applicants, modern languages 536 and geography 230.

The exact impact on schools can only be guessed at. The last school recruitment figures, produced by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), are 18 months out of date. Then, the national shortfall was just 0.5 per cent, but the picture was patchy, with problems in certain subjects, including maths, science and languages, and in certain areas, especially inner London and other large conurbations.

The DfEE releases new recruitment figures over the next few weeks; the deficit is almost certain to have grown. Even then, published figures might not show the true picture. Head teachers, after years of scarce resources, have an inherent ability to cope with shortages of all sorts.

"They are making do," suggests Jane Benham, head of recruitment and supply at the TTA. "Teachers are doing the best for the schools, but there may be a hidden shortage that the figures cannot reveal."

Ms Benham points out that a shortage of teachers will show through in a number of ways. When schools advertise posts, they may find their shortlists are shorter; applicants may not be as good as in previous years. "When you look at recruitment to initial teacher training, there is serious cause for concern," says Ms Benham.

So far, the recruitment shortage is most acute at the postgraduate PGCE level for secondary school specialists. Applications for undergraduate education degrees are faring better, although again maths, science and languages are problem areas. The shortage does not extend to trainee primary school teachers, although the TTA admits that it is concerned about the quality of applicants, especially for undergraduate courses.

The TTA is responding with a massive advertising campaign, with the slogan "Everyone remembers a good teacher". The agency, and academics at universities which train teachers, point out that the profession's poor public image contributes to recruitment problems. It is not, however, the only reason for a shortage of trainee teachers.

Pay deters some applicants, even though starting salaries compare well with many graduate jobs. According to Dr Kate Pretty, principal at Homerton College, Cambridge, the "steep career pyramid" is the issue. There are few senior jobs, and promotion to a headship takes an able teacher out of teaching.

Teacher bashing, and a view that successive governments have made teachers scapegoats for the education system's problems, also deter able undergraduates. So does the perception of teaching as a highly bureaucratic job, but without the prestige and security of a civil service job for teachers.

Equally, the economy is a factor: currently, the graduate jobs market is buoyant. "Teaching recruitment is the best barometer for the state of the economy," suggests Mike Gibson, professor of education at Kingston University. "When the economy is up, teacher recruitment is down. People are thinking twice before coming into teacher education." This is especially the case for maths and science graduates, whose skills are in short supply in business and industry.

Economics exacerbates longer-term tendencies across the education system. Teaching risks falling victim to trends that started some time ago in the schools themselves: a fall in the number of students taking maths, sciences and languages, especially to A-level. In the shortage subjects, there are simply not enough undergraduates per se.

To meet demands for maths teachers, half of all new maths graduates would need to enter the profession, according to the TTA. In modern languages, there are similar problems. Schools increasingly want teachers who can take classes in two languages, yet not all sixth-formers have the option of two language A-levels. At university, more undergraduates are opting for one language combined with a more vocational subject, such as business studies.

The TTA is developing a series of measures that are designed to encourage graduates to think again about teaching. Its next advertising campaign will use teachers to stress the rewards. The agency is running taster courses, courses for teachers returning to work and bridging courses, for example, to train numerate graduates without maths degrees to teach the subject. It is also turning to Europe for language teachers.

Taken together, these measures should alleviate shortages, but addressing the profession's structural problems will take longer. In fact, children's year 14 option choices do much to determine the supply of teachers in shortage subjects eight or nine years later.

"The problem is a long process of erosion," says Dr Pretty. "If you look at maths, which bothers most people because of worries about numeracy skills nationally, every maths graduate in the country could not fill the gap." As Dr Pretty warns, preventing shortages will be a long-term effort for universities, the TTA, and not least, schools.