Every September there seem to be the usual stories about teacher shortages. Inevitably, the Government is criticised for its failure to provide sufficient staff. Why, I wonder, do ministers bother to set targets for the number of teachers that can be trained each year? In a world where so much is delegated to schools, and market forces reign supreme, this remnant of the days of manpower planning seems like a hangover from a former age when planners in Whitehall appeared to know best and there was no room for debate. Disappointingly, despite all the recent government hype about record numbers of trainees, places in several subject areas will still be unfilled this September. Indeed, the last time training targets for secondary school teachers were met was when the economy was deep in recession, nearly a decade ago.
This year's shortfall is not for the want of trying. Although the Teacher Training Agency has the main responsibility for training, policy on teacher supply remains firmly in the grip of the Department for Education and Skills. To critics it might seem as if the TTA does little more than allocate training places to universities, colleges and schools, fund expensive advertising campaigns and pay for a staff of regional and local recruitment experts.
The DFES, on the other hand, seems to be forever inventing new ideas to boost the numbers of teachers. Thus, apart from the traditional training routes that lead to degrees or postgraduate qualifications, there are now more than 3,000 places available for those who want to train on the job. Fast Track, the Government's training scheme for the most able graduates and new teachers, starts its second year this September. More recently, a scheme for seconding new graduates from industry and commerce to spend two years in London's more challenging schools has also been given the DFES's tacit blessing.
From this summer, student loans can be repaid for trainees in subjects the DFES classifies as shortage subjects. On the other hand, the basic training grant for all postgraduate certificate in education students that was introduced two years ago has not even kept up with inflation. Modular and part-time courses have been introduced , but their distribution seems at best haphazard, and at worst downright random.
Despite the plethora of different schemes, the staffing of schools still depends upon a steady stream of overseas teachers. Increasingly, some schools have also come to depend upon the growing number of untrained instructors, without whose presence many schools would not be able to survive. The fact such untrained staff can now be referred to as "teachers" by the DFES, should raise alarm bells amongst the members of the General Teaching Council for England whose opposite numbers in Scotland would surely never allow such an undermining of the professional status of teaching. This is especially so since the DFES probably knows virtually nothing about these unqualified staff, other than that they have been police-checked.
Of course, in some ways none of this matters. The Government has not published any recent figures to show who is teaching what subjects and to whom in our schools. Indeed, the next teacher-training targets, to be announced in December, will have been set partly on the basis of data about the number of teachers qualified in different subject areas that was collected as long ago as 1996.
One of the reasons the Government can be so relaxed about the overall teacher-supply situation is that in England the official view is that teachers are just that, teachers first, and - even in secondary schools - subject specialists second. There is no requirement for a teacher to be trained in the particular subject they are teaching, even at A-level. Indeed, the DFES only publishes broad training targets for science, languages and technology. It does not seem to worry about what sort of scientists or linguists are recruited into teaching. Only in the humanities is it prepared to be specific and have separate targets for history, geography and religious education.
Do these questions about numbers and subject balance matter? If they do not, then why not hand over the recruitment and training of new teachers to the schools? With a new agreed standard for qualified teacher status set by the TTA, schools could employ sufficient interns on training contracts to meet their staffing needs.
The need to introduce some coherence into teacher supply is becoming urgent. Over the next decade, record numbers of teachers will retire. Even if retention rates among younger teachers are improved, workload and changing learning styles will almost certainly mean an increase in the number of graduates needed for teaching and other associated posts within schools.
Time is running out. Assuming the next general election is in the autumn of 2005, or early 2006, then to meet its election pledge of 10,000 extra teachers by the end of this Parliament the Government will need to increase overall teacher numbers by around 2,500 a year. After the comprehensive spending review, the money is there - but will there be the people?
John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University and a director of Education Data Surveys Hot data, 30