The price of a good teacher

Personally speaking
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The Independent Online
The teaching profession has often been criticised and maligned in the last decade, and teachers have received unjustified blame for many of society's ills. Teachers feel undervalued and demoralised. Their image - once prestigious and attractive - has become tarnished. It is, therefore, welcome to see the Teacher Training Agency spending pounds 1.5m on an advertising campaign: "No one forgets a good teacher". At last something positive is being done to enhance the image of the profession.

The motive underlying the campaign is recruitment to initial teacher training courses, which, in terms of both the number and the quality of recruits, is causing great concern. Last year there was a more than 20 per cent drop in the numbers applying for teacher training.

As the country has moved out of recession, many more employment opportunities, often with attractive salaries, have become available, and recruiting enough high-quality new entrants to teaching has become increasingly difficult. This is particularly true of secondary teacher recruitment (especially for subjects such as mathematics, modern languages and the sciences) but it has also become more difficult to attract primary school recruits. The recent announcement of a 3.8 per cent phased pay rise for teachers is unlikely to help the situation.

We are swiftly approaching a deep crisis in recruitment. Unless the situation improves dramatically, there are likely to be serious teacher shortages in many schools in a few years' time.

All the teacher training institutions naturally want applications from well-qualified candidates with the potential to become good teachers. These institutions, however, are funded for "bums on seats", and must achieve the allocated aims; failure to meet them means reduced income and, possibly, redundancies. Because fewer people are applying for initial teacher training courses, admissions tutors can find themselves in a difficult dilemma; they may have to offer places to students who, in ideal circumstances, they would rather reject. Unfortunately, the overall quality of students starting initial teacher training courses is gradually declining; a slow "dumbing down" is occurring, the opposite of what we all want.

The introduction of tuition-fee charges and removal of the maintenance grant means recruitment is likely to become harder. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has ruled out bursaries for undergraduates in their final year of four-year courses, though postgraduate students on one-year courses will get them.

The latest figures indicate a sharp decline in the number of applications for courses starting this autumn. Even more worrying, if the minimum entrance standards are raised, as both Sir Stewart Sutherland (in the Dearing Report) and the Education Select Committee have recommended, recruitment of undergraduates to initial teacher training courses will probably fall by a massive 60-85 per cent - depending upon the entrance level selected - at most institutions.

The Teacher Training Agency's advertising campaign "talks up" the profession by involving famous figures (such as Tony Blair and Joanna Lumley) who describe the debt they owe to a teacher who inspired them. But those making career choices are not stupid. The image of teachers is only one factor in the decision-making process. Unless schools themselves, and the career prospects of teachers, are made more attractive - and salaries raised significantly - there is every likelihood that the campaign will fail.

With the latest staged pay rise, a good honours graduate starting a first job in teaching this December will earn just over pounds 15,000 a year. After seven years, that will rise to a maximum of pounds 22,400, unless additional responsibilities are taken on.

Given the importance and responsibility of the job, the starting salary should be more like pounds 20,000, and the maximum for a classroom teacher at least pounds 30,000. With salaries like those, the status of teachers, in our money-obsessed society, would rise overnight

Unfortunately there is no indication that this will happen, and potential good-quality recruits will probably continue to vote with their feet, regardless of the advertising campaign.

By Nigel Gates

The writer was national chairman of the Association of University and College Lecturers last year.