The Teacher Training Agency's cinema advertising campaign to attract applicants to train to teach in secondary schools has flopped. Only physical education courses, and possibly music, will meet their targets in September; even once-popular subjects like English are in trouble. The TTA's response to this is to put the cinema adverts on TV, a strategy that brings to mind the words hole, digging and stop.
Leeds Metropolitan University's PE course attracts 1,500 applicants for 70 places. They are asked for a minimum of 18 A-level points (three Cs) but average 20 points (a B and two Cs). They equal or beat the scores of other entrants to undergraduate programmes, and comfortably meet the TTA's wish that student-teachers should have A-level scores equivalent to three Cs at least. The question is, if PE can pull them in, and of this quality, why cannot other subjects?
The obvious answer - that they have PE A-levels that fit them for nothing else, or A-levels in non-standard school-subjects like psychology or business studies - is not correct. Nearly all of this year's cohort have A-levels that would get them on to other teacher-training courses. Almost 30 per cent have grade A or B in a national curriculum subject other than PE; 70 per cent have grade C or better. English is the most popular with more than half having a pass, 20 per cent a grade C, and 10 per cent A or B.
If our 70 first years had not chosen PE they could have made 15 teachers of English, 11 of geography, nine of science, six of history, three each of modern languages and RE, and one each of mathematics, technology and music. Those figures presuppose that an A-level grade C is the minimum requirement. If we accept the sad fact that many courses have to make do with only grade E, our PE students would be spoiled for choice. A handful, with an average of 28 points, would be received as stars anywhere.
Why have they picked PE? Because they like it, obviously, but in their responses to the question they provide a clue as to why other subjects are unable to exert the same pull. All have enjoyed the PE lessons at school and have been encouraged to go into teaching by their PE teachers. Many say that other teachers have tried to discourage them, and for the familiar reasons: too much assessment, too many meetings, too much paperwork, too much abuse from politicians. The students are unaffected by this discouragement, but for reasons they are unable to define. The nearest I have ever got to the answer was when one applicant, asked how she thought she would cope with the stress and the abuse, said, after much thought, "Well, you can always get outside".
The reasons may be indefinable but the fact is not in doubt: PE teachers enjoy their work and encourage their pupils to follow them. Fresh air may blow troubles away, but maths and science al fresco is not a feasible policy.
Somehow, the TTA has to get teachers on its side. Maybe schools should be actively encouraged to produce more teacher-training applications, and rewarded for success. Maybe teachers should be encouraged through more praise and more pay. Or maybe the national curriculum for the year 2000 will stipulate only PE with everything else optional. I hope I'm only joking.
Mick McManus is a principal lecturer in teacher education at Leeds Metropolitan University