Anything for an image

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Even the Teacher Training Agency's critics would not accuse it of rigid thinking. The task of hitting the Government's new teacher-recruitment targets is so awesome that the agency is contemplating a huge range of strategies. Like the small ads job-seeker, its current motto is Anything Legal Considered. But couldn't the impending teacher shortages have been foreseen? And why will schools have to depend on the cavalry riding to their rescue when universities are producing more graduates than ever?

It is true that predicting a country's teacher-supply needs is much harder than it seems. At least three factors have militated against rational planning of late. First, the unexpectedly high numbers of teachers retiring early (17,000 last year). Second, the fluctuating number of "returners" re-entering the profession (in 1992 they filled about 50 per cent of vacancies but in 1995 only 19 per cent). And third, the Government's willingness to see pupil-teacher ratios deteriorate.

Nevertheless, there has been a slow response to the alarm bells set ringing by John Howson, of Oxford Brookes University, and others such as Professor John Tomlinson of Warwick. Although Howson is critical of the School Teachers' Review Body's complacency it did warn two years ago of a shortage of 20, 000 teachers by the year 2000. Civil servants have said the same thing privately to ministers but they apparently preferred to see the projections as worst-case scenarios.

Because of this vacillation the agency will have to work harder to meet its targets. In 2000-01, for example, it will have to attract nearly 40,000 student teachers - 3,000 more than at the height of the post-war emergency training scheme.

The withdrawal of the Pounds 1,000 bursaries for shortage-subject students also looks like a mistake. The Government may argue that the under-25s were not attracted by the bursaries and the over-25s didn't know they existed. But as grants fall and the cost of a fourth year of study for the Postgraduate Certificate in Education becomes prohibitive for many, the importance of the Pounds 10 million bursary money, now diverted into other incentive schemes, would inevitably have grown.

Bursaries are only part of the answer, of course. The fact is that teaching, at least in secondary schools, is not an attractive proposition to most graduates at present. Anthea Millett, chief executive of the TTA, may reason that teachers should project a more positive image of their job, but there is a more obvious conclusion. If the Government cannot recruit sufficient teachers with the pay and conditions offered it either has to improve them or accept that pupil-teacher ratios will worsen and that more classes will be taken by non-specialists. Unless the cavalry arrive.

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