Nineteenth-century politicians realised that education was a vital necessity for a successful democratic society. Today we are educating pupils whose working lives will stretch well in to the middle of the 21st century.
Increasingly it is those societies that can rely upon an educated population that are most likely to be both successful and prosperous. At the core of an educated society are its educators, many of whom are school teachers. Indeed without successful teachers all school improvement campaigns are mere chimeras.
It is in this context that the recent discussions in The TES, provoked by Anthea Millett's article about teacher supply (TES, April 3), need to be placed. As a former teacher-trainer I regret that Anthea Millett's spin doctors were not sensitive enough to the feelings of those in schools of education who have worked hard at keeping teacher training in higher education, often despite opposition in their own institutions. That some might do more is probably true, but encouragement is best undertaken in private along with the kind of support the agency's supply and recruitment team has been providing for the past two years.
For instance, the Teacher Training Agency listened to complaints from teacher-trainers about the Department for Education and Employment-inspired priority subject recruitment scheme and developed a replacement that met many of their objections. It has also channelled money for marketing taster courses to institutions and encouraged new methods sharing best practice through workshops and seminars.
What is clear is that there is a problem recruiting secondary-school teachers. Competition for graduates is such at present that, despite the growth in the number of new graduates, there are simply not enough to satisfy demand. Many of the members of the Association of Graduate Recruiters were unable to fill places last year. They have indicated that they will be seeking to recruit even more graduates in 1998. Teaching is still the largest consumer of new graduates, requiring some 20,000 or so this year alone.
What is the way forward? The TTA has the responsibility to develop the training of the profession and by doing so to enhance its status. Despite the introduction of new providers, the TTA cannot function without the help of higher education. The Government must also be aware that teacher-trainers are recruiting in a very competitive marketplace.
One radical solution would be to pass recruitment to those who employ the teachers, thus leaving higher education to contract for those parts of the training that it feels comfortable with. This model might entail groups of schools or local authorities taking on trainees and devising means of paying for them.
I have argued for a number of years now that teaching cannot stand out against a trend of paid training for graduates without affecting both the numbers and quality willing to enter the profession. With rising levels of student debt this point may become even more important. As many graduates are increasingly postponing job hunting until after finals, passing responsibility for teacher recruitment to the employers would have the twin benefits of relieving higher education of the burden of recruitment throughout the summer months and involving recruitment professionals in the process. This might allow for new standardised entry procedures including national police checking.
An alternative solution is to develop a franchise model with initial teacher-training providers being guaranteed an exclusive geographical area. This is a common model in the commercial world. Providers would then be expected to recruit as many students as possible from within the franchise area before looking elsewhere. This might help to strengthen links between education and subject departments, a point Anthea Millett alluded to in her article. There is especially room to develop further links with departments at universities without schools of education.
But even these measures may not be enough to secure sufficient new teachers, particularly in secondaries. Further and higher education's growth has provided jobs for many who would have previously entered secondary teaching because it provides the opportunity to work with a subject they enjoyed.
Next week the TTA will launch its revised corporate plans setting out its strategy for the next three years. It needs not only to deal with the present crisis in recruitment but also to look to the requirements of schools in the next century.
The TTA is well placed to work with higher education to research alternatives to present patterns of teaching and learning. These can include a greater use of information and communications technology to support specific learning development, particularly in mathematics where the teacher shortage may become acute. It is likely that despite the DFEE reducing the target for new entrants to maths teaching fewer places will be filled than last year. In the period between 1988 and 1996 the number of pupils per qualified maths teacher rose from around 120 to closer to 160.
Another alternative is to devise new job descriptions for para-professionals. What should the post of IT manager look like and how should they be trained? Can there be classroom assistants for all children and not just those with special needs? Can there be a role for retired experts that does not force them into full-time teaching? Will all these changes free-up resources to pay the leading professionals more in all schools and not just those working in the independent sector or in Education Action Zones?
Without some changes only a recession will solve the teacher supply problem and even that might not be a guaranteed solution.
John Howson is a visiting fellow at Oxford Brookes University and teacher recruitment specialist.