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Heading for crisis as iceberg surfaces?

As vacancies rise and recruitment to teacher training courses falls, will the DFEE and OFSTED regret playing down fears, John Howson asks.

Is there a teacher recruitment crisis? The Department for Education and Employment clearly doesn't think so. In its recent evidence to the Pay Review Body it wrote that "there is no need at present for a large general pay award on recruitment and retention grounds". The second half of that statement is clearly true. It is difficult to find evidence of teachers leaving the profession in large numbers for other jobs. Not much has been heard from the staffroom escape club recently.

There may also be a changing attitude to career breaks. After the cuts in the number of teaching posts during the past few years, taking a career break has come to be seen as a risky step. Many women teachers starting a family are now taking just maternity leave and then returning part-time or if absolutely necessary full-time.

This change has provided a short-term boost to teacher supply, but in a few years time there may be even fewer "returners" available to fill the vacancies. The change may also have made it more difficult for new entrants in some areas to find a teaching post.

If retention is not an issue, what of the state of recruitment? There are two areas to consider; recruitment to training and recruitment to employment. For the small number of entrants through the employment-based route into teaching they are the same thing.

The DFEE sets the targets for the Teacher Training Agency for recruitment into training in England; the Welsh Office deals with Wales, assisted by the TTA Unit in Wales. Employment of teachers is based on a free market with The TES as the main mechanism to bring together schools offering posts and teachers seeking new appointments.

Some data comes from the DFEE's annual survey conducted each January. There is also the work undertaken by the National Association of Head Teachers on headship vacancies and anecdotal evidence from the other teacher associations and the employers. But reliable up-to-date management information about the state of the labour market is difficult to come by.

Recently, the Office for Standards in Education has also added the weight of its statistical evidence to the view that suppressed and hidden vacancies might have caused both themselves and the DFEE to "contradict the more pessimistic statements from other sources about recruitment". OFSTED accepts that it now has evidence to corroborate that there are recruitment difficulties in shortage subjects, and in some parts of London and other local authorities.

Commenting on the situation in London it reported that "there are severe recruitment and retention problems in inner London". Both the recent Brunel Study for The TES and the DFEE's own evidence also highlight the London problem (see table). Twenty of the 22 LEAs with more than 1 per cent vacancy rates in January 1997 were in London. All the former local authority boroughs except Kensington and Chelsea are on the list.

Barking, where Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Commons Select Committee has her constituency, is one of the local authorities that has seen reported vacancies rise to over 3 per cent; the third highest rate in England.

If vacancy rates are rising in the job market for teachers, is there any way that the supply of new teachers emerging from training will help to alleviate the problem? Sadly, at least as far as secondary schools are concerned, the answer must be a qualified "no".

Only in art, PE and history are there a generous number of candidates for training institutions to choose from. In most other subjects the number of applications has been declining since 1994 - despite the combined efforts of both the TTA and the course providers. The latest figures, released only this week, show a further fall in the number of applications to postgraduate certificate in educationcourses. While the agency's recruitment campaign will help, particularly as it reminds the public both of the value and professionalism of good teachers, it is too early to say whether it will succeed in reversing the decline.

The graph above shows that, apart from in the recession years of the early 1990s, the Government has consistently failed to achieve its own recruitment targets in shortage subjects.

However, the targets are still well above those of 10 years ago. In most subjects many more students are being recruited to PGCE courses than was the case in the 1980s. Thus in 1985 only 856 students started training as maths teachers, compared with 1770 in 1996. More of those who train are also entering teaching.

There is still a question about whether in the post-Dearing world of higher education the revised financial arrangements will help encourage individuals to train as teachers. Fortunately after due deliberation the DFEE has now announced that PGCE students will not have to pay tuition fees, thus removing a threat which might have reduced applications still further. Nevertheless the issue of a training salary has been raised by the NAHT and the employment-based routes may now look more attractive then before to potential entrants to teaching.

If there are problems brewing in the employment market for new teachers they are still not as significant as those for senior staff. Once again the recruitment difficulties are worse in London, and particularly inner London, than elsewhere but there are signs that other areas are beginning to see difficulties starting to emerge. The problems of recruiting both heads and deputies to primary schools are well known. Recent research from the NAHT has shown that many schools receive fewer than 10 applications when they advertise a primary headship. The recent last-minute rush for early retirement has inflated the number of senior posts requiring advertisement in 1997 leading to an unplanned distortion of the market. The introduction of the National Professional Qualification for Headship will eventually assist by providing governors with a benchmark by which to judge applicants. Even one candidate with an NPQH may be worth many without any preparation for headship.

However, the increase in the number of headships advertised may not tell the whole story. The Local Government Management Board has now revealed that some schools probably don't even bother to fill the vacancy created when a head leaves. Rather they ask a deputy to take on an acting role. The LGMB figures indicated that 964 primary schools in 110 LEAs had either a vacancy for a headship or the post was being filled on a temporary basis. This would be close to 40 per cent of all primary headships advertised since the start of 1997. Clearly some headships are not being advertised immediately the vacancy occurs since my studies suggest a readvertisement rate of around 20 per cent of posts advertised or just over 400 primary headships so far this year, a difference of more than 500 posts.

Why governors make temporary appointments to posts they have not advertised is not clear. It may be either that they want to postpone advertising the post until a different point in the year or, alternatively, that they wish to save money by cutting out a post. Allowing a deputy to "act up" and appointing an acting deputy may create at least one salary to be saved at the classroom teacher level thus relieving pressure on the budget. Those "acting up" may also not receive the full rate for the job.

Under these circumstances some deputies may feel that they have no option but to take on the acting headship or deprive the school of any leadership. In those celebrated cases where local authority officers have been drafted in to run a school or an existing head has taken on the running of an additional school, presumably there was nobody in the school able or willing to take on the responsibility of leading the school. However, with the average age of the profession in the 40s, and probably still rising, the pool of potential applicants with 10 to 15 years' service is limited.

This is proving a problem for secondary schools not just at senior staff levels but also for schools seeking to appoint heads of department. With the very low recruitment targets in the 1980s and an even lower recruitment rate into training many schools are now finding it difficult to recruit middle managers with 10 to 15 years' service.

This is good news for new entrants who can expect the opportunity of fast-track promotion, particularly if they are prepared to take on the challenge of working in an under-performing school. However, as The Ridings School showed, such a move is not without risk. In London some unfavoured schools have high proportions of temporary staff and teachers from abroad who have not been trained in the national curriculum.

The current pay structure allows governing bodies to pay extra recruitment and retention allowances. This is difficult to do unless school incomes are rising since such extra payments must either reduce the number of teachers employed or increase the percentage of the total budget spent on pay to unacceptable levels.

With the Secretary of State telling schools to use any extra money that he gives them on anything but their pay bill governing bodies are caught in a cleft stick. Those with no recruitment problems can do as he says; those with problems must either pay more or risk not recruiting. This is one of the outcomes of a free market where price is one of the mechanisms used to allocate resources. For some "failing" schools even paying more may not be the solution and they will need to find other ways of recruiting staff.

A successful knowledge-based society cannot flourish if the teaching profession is headed for its third staffing crisis in as many decades. The cumulative effect of these crises is to cause recruitment problems for some at all levels from NQTs to heads.

The TTA is working hard at recruiting new entrants to teaching and ensuring that there is a career structure for serving teachers; it is now up to others to ensure that they play their part as well. At the end of the day it is difficult to raise standards without good teachers.

John Howson is a consultant to the TTA on teacher supply and recruitment matters and a visiting fellow at Oxford Brookes University TES december 5 1997 "The Teacher Training Agency is working hard at recruiting I it is now up to others to ensure that they play their part as well" The graph shows how successful, or otherwise, the Government has been in achieving its recruitment targets since 1983. The horizontal line represents the target in each year. The trend shows that after a period of over-recruitment in the early 1990s, the Government once again consistently failing to recruit up to target in core curriculum subjects Figures show London boroughs with a teacher vacancy rate of 1 per cent and above.

Source: DFEE,September 1997

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