Why don't students want to be teachers?

A crisis looms as young people turn against teaching
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After all the hype about Tony Blair, John Cleese, Anita Roddick and Jeremy Paxman appearing in cinema advertisements to tell young audiences about their most influential teachers, recruitment of student teachers remains dire. The Teacher Training Agency's advertisements, launched last October, will now move on to television in an attempt to boost applications for teacher training courses next October.

But the latest news from Ucas is grim. No graduates at all have applied to train as secondary teachers of Italian, Russian, economics, social studies or classics. Minority subjects maybe, but there has been only a single application for not-so-minority Spanish, and only 14 for French and 16 for geography.

Bizarrely, there have been 4,389 graduate applications for training as PE teachers. Otherwise, only maths and English, design and technology and business studies reach three figures. The House of Commons select committee on education warned of a crisis back in the autumn, as Tony Blair was being filmed for the TTA recruitment drive.

So what has gone wrong? Oddly enough, prospective students' views of the teaching profession do not seem to be all that negative. A recent survey, commissioned by the TTA and the National Union of Teachers, revealed that sixth-formers would rather become teachers than go for more glamorous professions such as the media, medicine and the law.

The most attractive careers for 16-19-year-olds turn out to be business and management, attracting 39 per cent of the young people interviewed. But teaching comes joint second with the creative/ performing arts, with 27 per cent. That leaves the media and PR, which have recently seen a massive growth in courses in higher education, coming third at 24 per cent.

The down side of the survey is that teaching is significantly more popular with sixth-form girls than with boys. Thirty-nine per cent of girls put teaching at the top of their list of careers, compared to only 9 per cent of boys. This huge discrepancy can give no comfort to those who think that the "feminisation" of the teaching profession, already in full swing, will be easy to reverse. The chance of getting more male teachers into primary schools looks bleak, on the basis of this survey.

By the time they start their A-levels and GNVQs, students also have a firm idea of what they would not like about working at the chalk-face. A majority of boys and girls are alarmed at the prospect of having to deal with unruly pupils. They are also unenthusiastic about the prospect of working long hours, taking work home, low pay and stress.

But they look much more positively on long holidays - boys find this particularly attractive - the chance to work with children, and job satisfaction. And they are pretty clear about what changes in schools would make it more likely for them to become teachers: better pay, better facilities, smaller classes and better disciplined students might all help.

David Blunkett seems to be on the right lines there, although it is going to be a slow process. And he is not helped, according to these students, by the extremely negative image of teaching which is currently putting prospective teachers off at an early age. They blame newspapers, soaps, magazines and films for a generally gloomy view of the profession - so perhaps the TTA is on the right track in trying to get to potential recruits through the media, too.

The only two subjects which seem likely to meet their recruitment targets this autumn are PE and music. This oddity prompted Mick McManus of Leeds Metropolitan University's PE department to wonder, in an article in the Times Educational Supplement, why his department was able to attract 1,500 applications for 70 places with an average of 20 points (a B and 2 Cs) at A-level. Most of these young people, he says, are well qualified to train to teach other subjects.

The only decisive factor which he could come up with in discussions with students was that they had been inspired by teachers who had enjoyed their jobs and had encouraged them to follow in their footsteps. Other staff, some students suggested, in fact discouraged them from becoming teachers for the usual reasons: too much assessment and paperwork, too many meetings and - Mr. Blunkett should note - abuse by politicians. Low morale, it seems, can be catching, high morale is inspiring.

But there are other difficulties, too. Part of the TTA's recruitment strategy is to persuade older people either to switch careers to train as teachers, or to come back to teaching after a career break. And in this area, too, all sorts of problems arise.

It is, for instance, difficult for teachers who have been working in further education colleges, where there have been thousands of redundancies, to switch to schools. Training for work in FE does not at present offer qualified teacher status; staff need a further year's training to make the switch possible.

The TTA is promoting a new route around this difficulty by supporting a new course run in partnership by Wolverhampton University and Bilston Community College in the West Midlands. The course will combine teaching in a school with training leading to qualified teacher status. Forty students will join the course in September, with their fees paid by the TTA.

But the news is less good for other mature entrants to the profession and for those returning after a break. Some find jobs almost impossible to find at salaries commensurate with their experience; if it is cheaper to recruit a 22-year-old, then that is what many schools will do.

The root of this difficulty lies in the Local Management of Schools funding system, which has until now reimbursed schools for salaries only at an average rate. This situation is to change in April, when local authorities have the option of paying schools their real salary costs. But many LEAs claim that they cannot afford this - so mature entrants and re-entrants to the profession may still remain jobless.