Teacher Training: Where have all the teachers gone?

The Government wants to attract high-quality recruits to teaching, but graduates are not taking the bait.
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It is early days yet, but the signs are that something odd is happening to teacher recruitment this year. The Universities' Central Council on Admissions and the Teacher Training Agency are tight-lipped about applications for BEd and postgraduate PGCE courses. The cynical might say that they do not want to be the bearers of bad news to a Government whose education policy is dependent on attracting high-quality recruits.

Even so, within weeks of Ucas's 15 December deadline for higher education applications, there are signs that all is not well and that some universities are becoming worried, particularly about postgraduate applications. Recruitment expert John Howson, of Education Data Surveys, says the fall in PGCE applications, admittedly early in the year, is almost entirely among mature applicants. The numbers of final-year degree students applying for PGCE courses has actually risen slightly, although nowhere near enough to make up the shortfall.

The Government's "golden hello" scheme - a pounds 5,000 incentive for PGCE students in shortage subject areas - boosted recruitment numbers late in the day last year in maths and the sciences, but does not appear to be having the same effect on recruitment this year. The latest figures from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry show that maths applications are 20 per cent lower than last year, chemistry is down by 27 per cent and biology by nine per cent. The extension of the scheme to foreign-language graduates does not seem to have impacted at all and applications for those subjects are more than 20 per cent down.

Figures are even more dire for the usually popular primary PGCE courses, where applications are down 27 per cent on last year, the lowest for six years at this stage, and 50 per cent down on the all-time high of 1995. The Teacher Training Agency is by no means ready to admit that there is a crisis. And the Government seems confident that applications will pick up in the spring, when the "golden hello" scheme for graduates will be heavily promoted again. But Howson disagrees. "The next four weeks will be critical for applications," he says. "If you look at this historically, a fall in applications at this stage in the cycle has never been made up later."

So what could have suddenly made teaching a less attractive career, especially for older applicants?

Howson believes there are several problems, none of which will necessarily be resolved by the start of the next academic year. The first, he says, is undoubtedly money. Graduates, whether originally school-leavers or mature entrants to higher education, are coming out of university deeper in debt than they have ever been. Even though PGCE students do not have to pay fees for their course, the postgraduate training is an intensive one and they still have to pay rent and maintenance with little opportunity for supplementing their income with part-time work, as most of them will have done as undergraduates. For most, the answer is yet more debt.

"I think the time has now come for the Government to consider a training salary for student teachers. That may be the only way to encourage new graduates to take on an extra year and to persuade mature graduates to give up their existing jobs and continue to train in the numbers we have been used to recently." Howson is not impressed by plans to allow mature students to take distance-learning courses and keep their existing jobs. "They still have to ask their employers for eight weeks off for teaching practice. What employer is going to be keen on that when they know the employee is doing it so as to leave and go into another career?"

John Howson thinks there are aspects of Government policy on teacher- training that may be putting prospective students off. This year's intake will be the first to take tests of "basic skills" - numeracy, literacy and IT - at the end of their courses, in spite of the fact that maths and English GCSE Grade C is already a prerequisite and regardless of the subject they are going to teach. Many postgraduates may not have studied maths since they were 16, and mature students for even longer, and some are undoubtedly asking why a maths test is relevant to their subject. "It is interesting that applications for secondary art courses have dropped," Howson says. "Art students may not be particularly numerate, literate or adept with computers. But they may be quite brilliant at teaching art."

Prospective graduate recruits may also have picked up some of the unhappiness in the teacher-training institutions over the introduction of more than 750 "competencies" that student teachers are supposed to acquire during their one-year training. Education staff, reluctant to be identified as opposing this Government initiative, say that this burden is impossible for them to administer. But they feel that students may miss their Qualified Teacher Status if they cannot prove, by audit and appropriate evidence as required, that the standards have been met.

A secret ballot by the National Primary Teacher Education Conference recently showed that 90 per cent of the staff responding believed they were being forced to comply with the unreasonable belief that all such requirements can be, and are being, met.

Teacher-training departments are not hermetically sealed from the rest of the academic world. If staff within them are unhappy, this will inevitably leak out and could be one more factor that is deterring some possible teachers from postgraduate training.