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Debt fears for teacher training

Rising levels of student debt are likely to trigger significant shifts in the way secondary teachers are trained, Douglas Weir, dean of the education faculty at Strathclyde University, has forecast.

Other college heads agree secondary teacher training may follow the lead of the primary sector in combining initial degrees with vocational training. All teacher training institutions currently run "concurrent" courses for some aspects of secondary but Professor Weir believes the trend will strengthen. Stirling University runs the best known concurrent course.

The Government has assured students on secondary training they will not have to pay tuition fees for their one-year postgraduate course but Professor Weir said the critical issue was the level of overall debt incurred. Students will end up with a greater burden, even if repayment methods are easier.

"Tuition fees are a small part of student debt," Professor Weir said.

Teacher training institutions are now planning to ease students' concerns by cutting the period of study required to become a secondary teacher by up to a year. Academic and professional studies could be completed in four years Professor Weir said: "Most institutions already have this model and 200 a year out of the 2,000 secondary teachers are trained this way. In primary, 55 per cent are on the four-year BEd (bachelor of education) courses and 45 per cent on PGCE (postgraduate certificate of education) courses. We could end up with the same distribution in secondary."

Most aspiring secondary teachers take the one-year postgraduate course but training in technology, music and physical education already take the four-year BEd route.

Professor Weir argues such an approach is a reasonable way of tackling what could be a particularly difficult recruitment problem once large numbers of teachers in their 50s retire in the next 10 years. An added difficulty is the strength of the general economy. Students opt for careers other than teaching when the economy is running well. Worries about debt may tip the balance unless training institutions respond, Professor Weir contends.

Plans to bring in more concurrent courses will depend on the attitude of the Scottish Office, he admits. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council would have to increase student intakes and this might lead to cuts in postgraduate numbers.

Another drawback is that a larger percentage of students who begin concurrent courses do not follow through their initial career choice. Postgraduate courses are better indicators of eventual numbers entering the classroom and more students would have to enter initial courses to compensate for the expected shortfall.

David Adams, the Northern College principal, accepts the revised model could develop, although secondary training required a number of different routes, as the Sutherland report emphasised. "Secondary teaching is a second career for many," Professor Adams said.

Bart McGettrick, principal of St Andrew's College, said there was "little doubt" new models would emerge from the financial pressures on students, the merger of colleges with universities and the need to devise improved methods for integrating academic study and vocational training.

"The idea that you can do your degree and then add the icing on the cake at the end of it is not a model for the future. We need a different model where professional and academic studies act together a little more," Professor McGettrick said.

However, he cautioned that concurrent training should not narrow the academic curriculum and that early selection for teaching should be avoided. Two years broad academic study could be followed by two years of specific subject training. Students should not have to decide whether they wanted to become a mathematics teacher when they joined a course, Professor McGettrick said.

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