First choice instead of last resort
No one can accuse the Teacher Training Agency of not setting ambitious goals for the teaching profession. A Pounds 1.5 million advertising campaign is only the first stage of a Pounds 10 million programme to make teaching one of the top three professions. The plan is to raise the standard of undergraduates on teacher-training courses; to increase the competition for acceptance as a trainee teacher and to try to ensure that 95 per cent of postgraduate entrants have at least a second-class honours degree.
The scale of the TTA's task is clear from research conducted in 1992 by the independent National Commission on Education. Questioning of undergraduates revealed that a significant proportion "would not consider" teaching as a career and this proportion increased as the class of degree improved. Even among those expecting to graduate with third-class degrees, 58 per cent either would not consider teaching as a career or "may consider it as a last resort".
So, why do people become teachers? A pilot study by the University of Leeds suggests that, in the case of history and science, graduates do not so much choose teaching as fall into it. Interviews with a sample of science and history teachers from four types of schools showed that few of them identified an early and long-term intention to enter teaching and their liking for their chosen subject did not always stem from the way they were themselves taught at school. Indeed, a number of these teachers were careful to distinguish their enthusiasm for their subject from the "boring", "incompetent" or "mind-numbing" way it had been presented to them as pupils.
For most teachers interviewed, however, the eventual decision to enter the profession was serendipitous, tentative or even provisional. Typical comments were "I thought I would give it a whirl", "I just stumbled into it", "It's nothing I ever planned to do" and "I will go back to engineering one day". One teacher, reflecting on her immediate contemporaries in a one-year postgraduate training course, claimed that of 15 would-be secondary science teachers only one had always wanted to be a teacher, adding that if, as graduate, you hadn't got a job "teaching was something you fell into".
For some of those interviewed, a range of financial or other similar factors figured more prominently in their recollection of their decisions to enter teaching. For example: "If I hadn't got pregnant, I probably wouldn't be teaching", "I was married, we had no money, so I became a teacher". For others, the decision owed as much, if not more, to dissatisfaction with their existing job. For example, one teacher had left the Civil Service out of "boredom and lack of contact with people" and another abandoned the chemical industry because it "bored me silly".
It would be unwise to draw any firm conclusions from these preliminary findings. All the teachers interviewed were committed to, and successful at, the work, and a number said that, having started teaching, they found it satisfying and enjoyable. As a minimum, more work is needed to see whether the findings are confirmed by larger studies. However, it seems reasonable to conjecture that those entering teaching "as a last resort", or for contingent reasons are unlikely, at least initially, to hold the profession in high esteem or to have a high sense of their own professional worth and standing.
Without this sense, it is difficult to see how teachers can develop the sense of community and cohesion necessary for the ongoing development of their professional expertise.
In addition, the research suggests strongly that it may be unhelpful to regard teaching as a vocation - an occupation to which one is called by some inner sense and for which one has a special fitness.
While this may be true of a few teachers, teaching, for the majority, is a job that they have taken up for a variety of, often unpredictable, reasons.
Unlike medicine and, to a lesser extent, law, where career decisions are often made upon leaving school, a decision to enter teaching in England can be deferred until late in an undergraduate course or, as a graduate, taken at almost any subsequent stage of adult life. While it is desirable that teachers should be men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds, experience and interests, this flexibility highlights a need for vigilance in promoting and safeguarding the standing of the profession in England and Wales.
Indeed, it can be argued that promoting a large number of routes to qualification as a teacher risks undermining the notion that teaching is a profession that rests upon distinctive but diverse forms of expertise that can be acquired only by appropriate training and practice.
Equally, however, such diversity might be regarded as an appropriate response to the uncertainty that seems to surround the decision to enter secondary-school teaching.
There is a further point. Any profession or occupation that lacks a sense of its own worth and whose expertise is seen as readily acquired is unlikely to be in a strong position to weather criticism about the way it discharges its responsibilities. Arguably, this has been the position of the teaching profession in England and Wales for at least the past decade.
Faced with an onslaught from government and some sections of the media about falling standards of pupil achievement, and regularly confronted with seemingly unfavourable international comparisons, morale and motivation have fallen sharply.
Finally, if the choice of teaching as a career is, for most teachers, made on such an unpredictable basis, then exhortation, advertising and short-term financial inducements may well amount to a useful, short-term strategy for improving teacher supply, since it accommodates the pragmatic and social dimensions of career choice. It seems unlikely, however, to enhance the image and status of the profession, upon which the recruitment of committed and highly-qualified staff, and the attainment of the TTA's targets, would seem to depend.
Edgar W Jenkins is professor of science education policy at the University of Leeds
Platform, page 23