Fewer pupils means money for teachers;Career development

15th January 1999 at 00:00
... and the demographer's perspective from John Howson.

Primary school rolls should start to decline from next year in line with the country's falling birth-rate.

This drop will not hit secondary schools until well into the first decade of the next century. According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the number of five to 14-year-olds in school across the whole of the United Kingdom in 2006 will be 2 percentage points below the number in school in 1990. There will still be 1 percentage point more 15-19s in education in 2006 than in 1990.

Generally the decline in the size of the UK school population between 1990 and 2006 is less than the average for all OECD countries. This is because we started from a relatively low base compared to other countries where family size did not decline to the same extent in the 1960s and late 1970s.

The reduction in pupil numbers will come as a relief to the Government. The age profile of the teaching force is skewed towards the older age groups, with more than 40 per cent of teachers in both primary and secondary schools now in their 40s.

Fewer pupils mean that the Government can either reduce the size of the teaching force or allow pupil-teacher ratios to start improving again. If it chooses the first option, it can use the cash released either to fund new initiatives, such as provision for the under-fives, or to increase the pay of the remaining teachers.

The Government has already signalled its intention to reduce class sizes at key stage 1 to below 30 but has yet to make completely clear what its intentions are elsewhere in the system. The initiatives outlined in the Green Paper would imply that the money will be spent on teachers and not on reducing class sizes.

The age distribution of the teaching force also has implications for the Government's other aim of requiring teachers to keep their skills up to date - something which older teachers may be less willing to invest time and effort in. They may be particularly unhappy about being asked to undertake such professional development outside their contractual hours, even if they are offered money to do so. This group may be particularly difficult to motivate when it comes to training in computers and information and communications technology.

Younger teachers face a potential period of rapid promotion as their senior colleagues retire in large numbers. Even now, 4.4 per cent of 25 to 29-year-old teachers in primary schools and 5.2 per cent in secondary schools are paid at or above point 9.5 on the pay spine. The market is, therefore, already offering "fast tracking" to some teachers, probably either in return for working in the more challenging schools or because they can teach subjects where there is a shortage of teachers.

These figures are not very different from the 5 per cent "of teachers" that, according to the Green Paper, "might be on the fast track". Currently, those accepting additional responsibilities can do so without the "supplementary contractual requirements" as envisaged in the Green Paper. These might be "a further four to six weeks' contracted time a year". Such new fast-track teachers are also expected to be more mobile than most teachers.

Whether this version of fast-tracking will work may be affected by the fact that certain parts of the country find it more difficult to recruit teachers than others. London, which has the greatest recruitment problem in the UK, will be one of the last parts of the country to benefit from the levelling off in the growth of the school population.

There are also a disproportionate number of schools in need of improvement in the London area. If fast-tracking opportunities were to be spread evenly across the country, with each region being offered a fixed number of posts, this might make matters worse unless schools were still allowed to offer rapid promotion to others not chosen for the national fast-tracking scheme.

Whether or not they are on the fast-track, young teachers may find that their role will change in other ways. They could lose their traditional pastoral function to counsellors and find themselves playing more of a "coach" role. Teachers might be glad to shed more of their administrative functions and, with the advent of the General Teaching Council, they could start to exploit their professionalism more than in the past.

Groups of teachers fed up with the hierarchical nature of the current workforce could band together to offer their services both to schools and to parents working from learning centres, not schools. By becoming self-employed they might aim to share in the benefits of the entrepreneurial society that this Government seems keen to foster. They would certainly not be bothered by the threat of performance-related pay since it would probably be set at too low a level to make any impact on their take-home pay.

These teachers, with others still working in schools, will recognise the value of ICT and refuse to work in learning environments that are not suitably equipped and kept up to date. They will also expect future governments to take the drudgery out of teaching and allow them to concentrate on the interesting parts of the learning process.

Above all, they will not tolerate poor leadership and antiquated working conditions because their skills will be easily transferable to the private sector.

John Howson is a visiting fellow at Oxford Brookes University, and runs an education research company, e-mail: int.edu@lineone.net


* What will the age profile of the teaching profession look like in 2006? The graph above, which attempts to answer that question, is based on the assumption that, although pupil numbers in secondary schools will rise over the period, and fall slightly in primary schools, the size of the teaching force will remain broadly the same as today.

In the graph the current level of recruitment has been continued, with the number of men joining the profession staying at the same low levels of the past few years.

Changes in early-retirement policies or attempts to improve class sizes across the board, and not just at key stage 1, would affect the shape of the graph, probably by increasing the number of teachers in their 20s. However, if the Government manages to attract new teachers from those already in the labour market, then it might mean an increase in the small number of teachers in their 30s.

Worryingly, between 40 and 50 per cent of the teaching force are likely to be in their 50s. Whatever their commitment to teaching, ill-health and other factors could seriously affect the level of involuntary absence of a large part of the teaching force. Additionally, the problems for the years 2006 to 2016 of replacing about 150,000 teachers may place the system under considerable strain.

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