Bad business

30th March 2001 at 01:00
The government is offering incentives for recruitment, but what of the new teachers who just missed the boat? Steven Hastings reports.

It's usually best to be at the front of the queue. The early bird, so wisdom has it, is the one that gets the worm. But the cynical could say that anyone currently contemplating a career in teaching might be well advised to hang back.

Every year seems to bring a lucrative new recruitment incentive. Training salaries, golden hellos - and now plans to pay off student loans. Wait another 12 months and they could be throwing in company cars and holiday vouchers.

But not everyone is overjoyed at the suggestion in the recent Education Green Paper that from September the Government will clear the student loans of new recruits. For young teachers already in the profession, and facing an uphill struggle with debt, the announcement has rubbed salt into their financial wounds.

Sam Jackson is a secondary English teacher on the south coast. She has missed out on three separate incentives. She missed the introduction of pound;6,000 training salaries by a year. She missed the pound;4,000 golden hellos, which are now being extended to include English for the first time. And she misses out on this latest promise to pay off debts. Struggling with debts in excess of pound;10,000, Sam feels cheated.

In theory someone taking up her post just two years after her could be pound;20,000 better off. "Of course I'm bitter. I know there's always going to be someone who misses out. But it's unfair not to phase in the incentives to help current NQTs. It's very insensitive."

According to the DfEE, the plan to pay off loans is a business decision in which sensitivity and fairness play little part. "Life isn't always fair," muses a spokesman. "When people go into teaching they do so knowing the terms and conditions on offer at the time. They can't have any complaints.

"The fact is the labour market has changed. The economy is buoyant and graduates are in demand. Other businesses are offering recruitment incentives. We have to respond. We have to be hard-headed about it."

The problem with a hard-headed approach is that to those on the receiving end it can seem plain hard-hearted. Teachers are statistically more likely to leave the profession within their first five years of work (almost a quarter of NQTs quit within three years) than at any other time until retirement. Yet this is the very group which, in its scramble to boost recruitment figures, the Government has alienated and offended.

Few would deny that the promise to pay-off loans will stimulate more interest in teaching as a career choice. But unless the flow of young teachers leaving the profession is stemmed, it will be a case of turning on the tap without first putting in the plug.

"There are a good handful of NQTs at my school and we are all hacked off about this," explains Sam. "Several of us have talked of leaving teaching. The Government will end up with a reasonable crop of new teachers, some contented senior teachers who have come to terms with their lot, and a glaring hole in the middle where people like me have upped sticks and left."

Sam's debt is not untypical. She has pound;8,000 to pay off under the student loan scheme and an additional pound;2,500 in credit card bills and overdrafts. She is keen to stress that the debt isn't the result of expensive tastes and high-living. "I don't drink, I gave up smoking and I'm not big on cosmetics. We're talking rent and groceries. I did my PGCE in London and the cost of living can destroy you."

As an undergraduate she did paid work evenings and weekends, but during her teacher training she thought this would be "irresponsible". Trainee teachers on placements can also face additional costs for travel and suitable clothes.

For those who missed out on the training salary scheme, debt is almost inevitable. And while the Student Loan Company charges only inflation-rate interest and is unlikely to threaten your kneecaps, debt can nonetheless be stressful and self-perpetuating.

Sam is planning to work over the summer holidays in an effort to make inroads into the loan. She knows a break from work is important, but feels getting on top of her repayments is the real priority.

Extra-curricular employment is not something which teachers who have their loans repaid will have to face. Not surprisingly current NQTs feel the struggle to repay debts could hamper their careers. If some teachers are moonlighting in their holidays, while others are re-charging their batteries and preparing lesson-plans, it's easy to see which ones are likely to scoop any performance-related pay.

Some students try to clear their debts before starting a PGCE so they can begin their professional career with a clean slate. One teacher worked in a bacon factory after her degree to pay off pound;5,000 of loans. A life-long vegetarian, she feels her time spent "slicing dead pigs" was "a complete waste of two years of my life".

For mature students with families the cost of becoming a teacher can be even more daunting. Greg Neumann (pictured above) had a well-paid job in the IT industry, but wanted to teach. Now nearing the end of a PGCE in physics at Birmingham University, he is lucky enough to have saved pound;18,000 before changing careers. He was also one of the first recipients of the pound;6,000 training salary.

In addition to this he explored other funding avenues such as the Secondary Subject Shortage scheme, access bursaries, LEA dependency grants, and charity and trust funds. But without the savings it would have been impossible to make the switch.

"Yes, I received several thousand pounds, but nowhere near enough to run a home and three kids. A weekly household food bill of pound;100 wipes out the training salary straight off. I'd been saving hard for five years - without that my family couldn't have got by."

But despite knowing first hand the financial strains of pursuing a teaching career, Greg has his doubts about the new initiatives. "The concept of paying off loans is appalling. I sacrificed a lot because I was committed to a teaching vocation. My fear is that it will attract the wrong people - drifters and so forth. They could come in, get their debts paid off and leave."

The unions also have doubts about the long-term benefits of quick-fix incentives. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, wants headline-grabbing hand-outs replaced by a fundamental improvement in working conditions. "The incentives are just sticking plaster. They don't address the real problem of unreasonable hours, low basic salaries and a lack of appreciation for the work teachers do. Incentive schemes can have a short-term impact but we want to encourage teachers to stay in the profession for life. Making large numbers of recent recruits feel alienated and undervalued isn't the answer."

One group who will be feeling less alienated if the Green Paper reforms come into place is the undergraduate trainees who have been denied training salaries until now. Under the latest proposals BA, QTS and BEd students will receive a salary in their final year. There are even plans to allow the most promising candidates to apply for posts at the end of their third year and complete their degree on the job.

Currently all the proposals are open to consultation. Details will not be finalised until June. Already the scheme to pay off loans, which was to have applied only to graduates of British nationality, has had to be amended to include EU nationals, in order to comply with European law.

The previous round of recruitment incentives proved a qualified success. Unions point out that despite golden hellos and training salaries the list of shortage subjects continues to lengthen. The Government counters with the statistic that there are 2,250 more people in training than this time last year.

If the plans to pay off loans are rubber-stamped, doubtless there will be another surge of applicants. But some of those currently struggling to make their mark in the classroom with the weight of debt on their shoulders may not be around to welcome the nouveau riche recruits.

"I consider myself a really moral and responsible person," explains one disgruntled debtor in North Yorkshire. "But I'm applying for a visa to work abroad. The student loan company won't see me for dust! I'm paying my debt off in the classroom. I don't owe education in this country a thing."


* Training salaries for PGCE students: pound;6,000 tax-free

* Golden hellos: pound;4,000 at end of induction year. Available to secondary teachers of sciences, mathematics, modern languages, DT and ICT.

Proposed changes in Green Paper

* Repayment of student loans. Suggestions include 10 per cent of debt to be repaid each year for 10 years, provided a graduate remains in teaching. Will apply to all new teachers. If you leave after a year, say, you will be responsible for 90 per cent of your debt.

* The list of "golden hello" subjects to include English.

* LEAs to help young teachers in high-cost areas buy their own houses under the starter-home initiative.

* Schools to offer discretionary pound;5,000 recruitment or retention bonuses to solve specific recruitment problems.

* Undergraduate trainees (BA, QTS and BEd) to be awarded a PGCE-style salary in their final year. Tuition fees for the final year will also be waived. Best students fast-tracked into jobs at end of third year.

* Undergraduates on traditional degree courses to be offered "education modules", enabling them to train as teachers during their degree with no need for a PGCE year.

* Expansion of the Graduate Teacher Programme, offering more graduates a chance to train in post at selected schools, at about pound;13,000.

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