Throwing money at a problem is one way to make it look as if you’re doing something.
The Department for Education cites bursaries worth up to £30,000 a year for teacher trainees when it is asked increasingly pressing questions about how it is tackling shortages.
It’s a solution that’s certainly popular with physics graduates – as well as the rumoured “bursary tourists” from the European Union; teachers who are happy to come to England and train to teach their own language to the nation’s teenagers.
But it’s not going down well with a lot of others. Particularly the people whose job it is to make sure that the money being spent is actually solving any problems.
A report released by the National Audit Office (NAO) last week, Training New Teachers (see “By the numbers” in this week's TES magazine) points out that the main problem is that it is not a long-term solution: “The department’s analysis shows a statistical link between bursaries and the number of applications to train…The department has not assessed the impact of bursaries on applicants’ success or the number who go on to qualify and teach.”
It also offers some numbers: £620 million was spent on bursaries in the five years to 2014-15 and £167 million is planned for both 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Here is another number that the report quotes: £22,244, the basic taxable starting salary for teachers outside London.
“There is a risk that recipients of bursaries will be disappointed by available salaries after qualification,” the NAO notes. Some people have put it rather more bluntly.
“The current bursary offer implies desperation,” the University of Cumbria said in its evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee late last year. “£30,000 is the maximum on offer for those willing to undertake a nine-month PGCE programme with no commitment to enter the teaching profession.
“What evidence is there to demonstrate that this is a good use of public funds?”
And St Mary’s University, Twickenham, was the first to suggest that the offer wasn’t just appealing to impoverished UK graduates.
“There is developing awareness of bursary tourists from EU in some subject areas, eg, secondary MFL,” the university told the committee last year. “This adds weight to the belief that we are developing a teacher training and development culture that rewards training at the expense of teaching with no requirement to actually enter the profession.”
Universities – whose entire raison d’être is to not only come up with bright ideas, but also check that they actually work – may be worth listening to.
“The effectiveness of the current financial recruitment initiatives should be re-examined with attention paid not merely to the supply of teachers but to their retention,” a joint submission from the Universities of Birmingham, Cambridge, Durham, Nottingham and Oxford reads. “There are concerns that many of those who may be attracted to fill training places by the offer of large bursaries, may fail to enter the profession at all, or leave the profession very quickly.”
The University of Southampton took a rather more cheery tone in its submission. “We would not want to suggest that bursaries are anything other than a good thing,” it said. “But there is evidence that offering the top physics graduates a £30,000 bursary, which will give them £21,000 tax-free during their training year, is attracting candidates who have no intention of staying in teaching beyond their training, which is not good for retention…We would like to see a more equitable spread of bursaries.”
So in summary, offering first-class physics graduates and top-ranking mathematicians and scientists money certainly seems to attract them into teacher training. But does it attract them into teaching? And does it mean they are better teachers?
The best-selling book Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, manager of the baseball team Oakland Athletics, who questioned what a player’s stats actually meant on the pitch.
While other clubs were spending large amounts of money to attract star players, Oakland concentrated on spending smaller amounts on players who may not have been individual stars, but whose contribution meant that the team as a whole was stronger.
And not only is there little evidence that bursaries as high as £30,000 are adding to the profession, some fear that they could even be damaging it (see the full range of financial incentives available).
It took Martin Thompson, executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers, to point out to the Commons committee that teaching was a team sport.
“If you want to teach primary and you have a 2:2, we will give you nothing, and if you have a first-class degree in maths and you are going to be teaching, we will give you £30,000,” he said. “If you take a collegiate approach, that is not how a school and schoolteachers would think among themselves.
“If you are going to talk about a profession, that is what you have to look at. It has to be something that is attractive to all.”
No one wants to discourage the government’s new-found largesse so much that it stomps off and refuses to throw any more money around.
But spending hundreds of millions on teacher training is a game that perhaps needs to be played with a little more finesse and a lot more information.
Teacher supply 'risk'
The National Audit Office (NAO) has predicted a “significant risk” to the supply of trainee teachers in England if the government continues to fail to hit targets for numbers of new school staff.
In a report published last week, Training New Teachers, the public spending watchdog says that the Department for Education has missed its recruitment goal for the past four years.
In 2012-13, initial teacher training targets were missed by a margin of 1 per cent (528 places); in 2013-14 by 5 per cent (1,691); and in 2014-15 by 9 per cent (3,201). This year, the target was calculated differently (including Teach First but excluding undergraduate training) and missed by 6 per cent (1,639), with 33,209 starting training overall.
The DfE does not set regional targets for teacher recruitment. But the NAO used official figures to show the dramatic variations between the number of trainees in each region in 2015-16, when compared with pupil numbers.
The North West is the best served, with 547 teacher trainees for every 100,000 pupils. This is 86 per cent higher than the worst-served region, the East of England, with 294 per 100,000.
By calculating figures for 2013-14 in the same way, TES can reveal that the problem of regional variation has increased significantly over the past two years. The gap between the worst-served region (the East Midlands, with 324) and the best-served (the North West with 520) two years ago was 60 per cent.
North of the border, the Scottish government slashed teacher training places in 2010-11 because new teachers were failing to find work. But with schools now suffering teacher shortages, the country has had to increase its intake.
This is an article from the 19 February edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here
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