Graduate Plus: Wanted: a new class of teacher

The image is about to be changed. Schools are chasing high-fliers.
The teaching profession is to boost its image with a national advertising campaign to encourage more potential teachers to view the profession as a valuable, long-term career.

The move follows a big drop in applications to teacher training courses this year, raising fears that schools could soon face a recruitment crisis. Students made 66,733 applications to undergraduate teacher training courses in October, compared with 75,900 applications last year. Primary schools look set to be hardest hit with applications down 12.3 per cent, year on year. Secondary school applications have dropped by 8.7 per cent.

These figures are mirrored by a decline in applications to take the one- year post-graduate courses: application for secondary school teaching places are down from 12,660 to 10,955; potential primary school entrants have fallen from 12,136 to 11,840.

John Nicholles, a careers adviser at the University of London, is not surprised by the fall. "Ten years ago, the same thing happened. After recession set in, numbers began to rise." Many applied for teacher training courses to have a year out of the job market, he believes. Others viewed it as a second choice career - one job at least that would "always be around". He says today's fall in applications is for the same reason: a stronger economy.

A major disincentive for young people considering a teaching career is low pay, increasing workloads and crumbling classrooms, Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said last month. The Teacher Training Agency also blamed the "doom and gloom" spread by the media. So what opportunities exist and just how does the TTA plan to overcome the apparent lack of interest in a teaching career?

The public perception of teaching has changed radically in the past 20 years. While the focus once rested on the teacher's primary role of educating and encouraging the young, more recently a growing number of applicants have been attracted more by the greater flexibility of a non-office work environment and 13-week holidays each year.

While interest in becoming a teacher may have fallen, public attitudes research confirms that the role of teacher is second only to that of doctor in terms of perceived social value. Yet, a recently qualified French teacher working in London confides: "Both during training and in the staff room, I've encountered many for whom teaching seems at best a second choice."

Inevitably, pay is a disincentive for some - starting salaries remain pounds 1,500 below those at graduate level in other fields. Yet today's average teaching salary stands at pounds 20,000, with deputy and head teachers earning from pounds 24,000 to pounds 55,000 a year.

The TTA, a government agency set up three years ago, is aiming to reverse this negative image, and fall in supply. The Government sets the TTA recruitment quotas each year and its brief is to boost the supply of teachers, specifically in under-resourced subjects. It also hopes to tackle the shortage of male teachers in primary schools where 82 per cent of teaching staff are female.

"It's all part of re-positioning teaching as a career with definable goals and clear progression," a TTA spokesman explains. "We're not trying to attract just anyone into the profession, we want to encourage high- fliers. Our message is that teaching is neither 'cosy' or 'soft' - it's intellectually challenging and stimulating. A major reward is the ability to shape young people's future, and contribute to how tomorrow's society will look and feel."

TTA has to date focused on targeted advertising in subject-relevant journals as well as working with industry, colleges and local educational authorities to produce and distribute relevant literature. It is also in discussion with regional government offices to develop information and recruitment policies.

However, a higher profile strategy is almost inevitable. "Students tend to seek advice on careers they know little about," says Nicholles. "With teaching it's something we've all had first-hand experience of - at the receiving end. It is a careers choice people tend to make alone, although with the influence of media depiction of what teaching is 'really like'."

The TTA is now considering a generic campaign to promote careers in teaching. And the agency has just launched a teacher recruitment service on the Internet. The Web site includes details of how teachers can develop their skills through in-service education and training. The agency hopes a greater emphasis on continued career development will not only attract higher calibre candidates, but encourage them to stay in the professionn