Candidates in the cold

24th February 1995 at 00:00
The squeeze on training places for social scientists could backfire on schools. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

Social sciences are poised for a revival in schools but will there be enough qualified staff to teach the subjects? With rising numbers at A-level, the widespread pursuit of vocational qualifications and the freeing-up of statutory teaching time following the revision of the national curriculum, a host of opportunities is opening up for expanding the contribution made by social science teachers. But the number of graduates securing places on training courses to teach these subjects is still being squeezed.

The problem is a legacy of the old national curriculum which forced non-statutory subjects off the timetable, and anxiety among schools about standards and public image. Applicants offering non-pure subjects have found it increasingly difficult to break into the system. And teacher training centres have found it hard to persuade schools that social scientists have anything useful to offer in the face of schools' insistence on taking only statutory subject specialists.

Pat Smith, chairwoman of the Association for the Teaching of Social Sciences and Social Science education tutor at Keele University's department of education, says that despite the Department for Education's attempts to change the situation, students wanting to become teachers are actively being dissuaded from doing social sciences at degree level, even though this is a growth area. She says a circular sent out by the DFE last year stated no applicant offering non-curriculum subjects should be discriminated against in teacher training, but it is harder to convince schools to offer them jobs.

"The DFE guidelines say the most important consideration is that the student is competent to do the job by the end of the teacher training course. This was a very important development but it has not filtered down to careers departments and schools," she says. "At the same time the number of institutions offering teacher training in this area has also shrunk because the demand from schools has decreased. There are hundreds of high calibre students out there who would make excellent teachers but cannot get on to a course.

"The irony is that while schools are looking for staff who are flexible and able to teach a variety of subjects, social scientists who fit the bill perfectly as they are multi-skilled, with experience in areas like sociology, psychology, and politics, are being turned away."

Her university receives more than 180 applications a year from social science graduates hopeful for one of its 15 teacher training places. Overall, training colleges and universities in Britain offer less than 140 places a year in the social sciences for prospective teachers even though figures from the examining boards show a huge rise in the number of candidates taking these subjects at A-level.

The biggest rise has been in psychology which recorded more than 19,000 entries in 1994, compared with 8,500 in 1990. Sociology has risen from 24,800 to 32,000 in that period, political studies is up from 12,100 to 13,100 and law has risen from 9,000 to more than 12,200.

Yet at Leeds University's School of Education the future of post-graduate teacher training courses in social sciences is hanging in the balance. The university offers 12 places a year but the course could be scrapped if a review over the next few months finds it uneconomical to run. A spokesman says: "It is a distinct possibility that the course will be axed."

Alison Kirton, tutor of the social studies PGCE course at the Institute of Education is more optimistic about the future. She says the Dearing Report on the national curriculum has freed more time for subjects such as integrated humanities and, in time, more specialist teachers will be needed to take on GNVQs as well as meet the demands of the growth in A-level social sciences.

"There was a feeling in schools that only teachers with a pure degree in a subject could make good specialists. I believe the situation will now improve. The Government has removed the requirement for students to have a national curriculum subject before being admitted for teacher training because it wants GNVQs to work. Unless we make the profession more accessible to social scientists, we will end up with gaps which teachers of pure subjects will find very hard to fill."

Some schools have already risked controversy by recognising the contribution social science teachers can make. When Howard Marsh, the headteacher of Sneyd High School in Newcastle-under-Lyme chose a social scientist in preference to two subject specialists to fill an English post, the chair of governors threatened to resign .

But Mr Marsh stood by his decision to appoint Sarah Godden, a graduate in social policy from the University of Kent with previous experience of teaching special needs pupils, because he believed she was "by far the best candidate".

Her degree included courses on education and the welfare state.

"Logically I should not have appointed Sarah because we were interviewing two specialists," he says. "But I have never regretted my decision. Sarah is completely focused on the needs of individual pupils instead of being centred on a particular area. This school has a high percentage of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and someone with her experience was exactly what we needed."

Ms Godden trained for teaching at Keele University, where she was rewarded as a top student in her year, specialising in social studies with history as a subsidiary. She agrees that social scientists bring particular qualities to the classroom. "We tend to be more inquisitive and quite analytical. I am continuously conscious about certain issues, such as sexism in the classroom, because these are areas I have studied which graduates taking traditional routes into teaching may not have."

Her view is echoed at Biddulph High School, also in Staffordshire, where headteacher George Agar regularly takes in social science specialists for teaching practice. The school employs one sociologist, Martin Shaw, to teach A and AS-level sociology as well as GCSE history, outdoor activities and personal social skills courses. Mr Agar says: "We look for people who have a width of experience which will enhance young people's lives. Mr Shaw fitted that requirement perfectly."

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