A shortage of thousands of English and maths teachers at GCSE level could scupper the introduction of the new English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) in the FE sector, colleges have warned.
After discussions with the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Department for Education has estimated that the sector currently has a shortfall of 25 per cent in the number of specialist teachers it needs to teach English, and is 10 per cent down for maths.
James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, blamed the dearth of appropriately qualified teachers in FE on low pay and poor job security in the sector. He also warned that tuition fees of up to pound;9,000 a year for teacher training could deter colleges from retraining their existing staff and scare off new trainees.
The DfE's consultation on EBCs - billed as "more rigorous" alternatives to GCSEs, and due to be introduced in 2015 - asks whether it should "expect post-16 institutions to be ready to provide EBCs at the same time as secondary schools", or whether they need more time "to build capacity in their workforce".
But Mr Noble Rogers cautioned that not introducing EBCs in colleges at the same time as in schools would send out the "wrong signal" about the sector. "If this is the right qualification, there has to be equity of treatment, or it reinforces the old message that we've been working so hard to challenge," he said.
The shortage of English and maths teachers in FE could also thwart the Wolf report's recommendation that students who fail to obtain at least a GCSE grade C in the subjects should be required to keep studying until they reach the benchmark.
Joy Mercer, the AoC's head of education policy, said that colleges are "very concerned" by the "sheer volume" of extra teachers needed.
In February, it was announced that a maximum of 10,000 bursaries of pound;1,000 would be available to help trainee FE teachers cover their tuition fees, with 1,000 additional people training to teach basic English and maths eligible for the larger sum of pound;1,500.
"It's quite a small amount of support," Ms Mercer added. "Teachers need these courses to become qualified, and in higher education, pro rata, the fees will be up to pound;9,000 a year. We're between a rock and a hard place. We have to train staff, but staff didn't want to take out a loan and colleges don't have that sort of resource."
And with teachers likely to need extra training to get to grips with EBCs, Ms Mercer said colleges must be given sufficient time to prepare.
"We don't have a problem with (the introduction of EBCs) if it's worthwhile, but if we don't have the resources it can't happen," she said. "We can do it poorly and quickly, or we can make sure we have the right staff and do it well. We have to be careful about making the transition too quickly."
Jean Kelly, director of professional development at the Institute for Learning, said that while FE teachers are "dual professionals" who would be able to quickly adapt to the new qualification, more consultation is needed.
"That's our worry. The policy could seem to be moving in the right direction, but its unintended consequences could be quite far-reaching," she added.
One of John Hayes' final acts as FE minister was to announce that the existing requirements for minimum qualifications to teach in the sector would be retained "for the time being". But Mr Noble Rogers feared that the regulations could be relaxed to meet the short-term need of attracting more teachers to the sector.
"What if they did go? There would be an even bigger shortage of properly trained teachers," he said. "If the government wants (EBCs) to be taught properly, it has got to have enough people able to teach them."
The DfE was not available to comment.
Alas, a lack
25% - Shortfall of English GCSE-level teachers.
10% - Shortfall of maths GCSE-level teachers.
We can do it poorly and quickly, or we can make sure we have the right staff and do it well.