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How hard can it be to fail?

In most training institutions, low failure rates would be hailed an achievement. Not in teaching. Fiona MacLeod reports

Teacher education institutions, under the microscope once again as the curriculum reforms kick in, have baulked at suggestions that it is too easy to become a teacher.

The TEIs are being criticised for low failure rates, with reports that only 23 students in Scotland failed to qualify or finish their studies in 2004-05.

The insitutions say their courses are hugely over-subscribed and some students don't even reach the point of failure, dropping out when it becomes clear they will not manage academically.

Iain Smith, dean of Strathclyde University's education faculty, told The TESS that in the one-year postgraduate primary teaching course, there were 850 applicants last year. Of these, 460 were accepted, 40 dropped out over the year (mainly after being advised they would not pass the course) and 10 failed.

"There is a lot of scrutiny at the point of admission, but a 10 per cent failure rate over a one-year course is not a low failure rate," he said.

"There are significantly more applicants than places. That is the first hurdle to jump."

The secondary postgraduate course is similarly over-subscribed, with 810 people accepted from 1,600 applications.

"Of the 810, over the course of the year 75 dropped out mainly because they were advised to because it was clear they weren't going to complete the course, and 15 people were formally failed at the end of the course."

Mr Smith argued that over-subscription meant only those most likely to succeed made it onto the course: "It is not easy to get into. If you want to become a primary teacher, we have 160 places in first year and we receive more than 1,600 applications; that's a one to 10 ratio."

Of the 160, around 80 per cent succeed and enter their probationary year.

At Stirling University, there are similarly high application numbers. Last year, there were more than 700 applications for 120 places with geography, history and PE being particularly popular subjects.

Around 15 per cent of these students dropped out of the teaching aspect of their degree which, uniquely in Scotland, is a concurrent course in which undergraduate training takes place alongside academic subjects.

A spokeswoman for Stirling University said: "It is difficult to compute accurate percentage drop-out figures. One issue is that our programme is not a single year PGDE, with a self-contained cohort. Many students drop out for reasons that are external to their teacher education, academic failure elsewhere on their degree programmes, for example.

"In many cases, withdrawal from initial teacher education is a decision taken by a student when professional failure is pending; in others, there are personal reasons, such as funding problems.

"Most of the drop-outs occur earlier, particularly among students who fail to cope with the demands of the programme, including the first secondary school placement at the end of semester five."

The others

Is it easier to join another profession than to become a teacher? At Dundee University's dentistry school , 59 students passed last year and two failed - not including those who re-sat exams successfully.

In accountancy, on average, 85 per cent who start a three-year chartered accountancy course pass. A spokesman for the Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland suggested high success rates could be expected from people who already had a history of academic success, as in teaching: "More than 95 per cent of chartered accountancy trainees have a 2:1 degree or better."

To become a solicitor, graduates in law undertake a postgraduate diploma in practical law. Once they pass that, they must undertake a two-year traineeship in a practice to obtain their certificate to practise as a solicitor.

The Law Society of Scotland reports that the diploma is over-subscribed, with 770 applicants this year for 660 places at five Scottish universities.

Liz Campbell, the society's director of education and training, described the diploma as a practical bridging stage and said that those undertaking it already had a successful academic record and were unlikely to fail.

"It is hugely competitive to get into the diploma, though some people do fail it," she said.

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