Get them young

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Europe's teachers are too old, says John Howson. But a recession could bring in some much-needed twentysomethings

The recession in the UK manufacturing sector may be bad news for the economy but it could help to ease the shortage of teachers in maths, science, and design and technology.

Should the downturn spread to the wider economy, applications for teacher training courses are likely to rise across the board - if the experience of previous recessions is any guide. This September may therefore mark the peak in the current teacher-vacancy cycle.

However, a bigger storm is brewing because of the profession's distorted age profile.

You might think an ideal teaching force is made up of roughly equal cohorts in each of four age bands spanning the twenties to the sixties.

But as the age of leaving higher education rises and more graduates decide on teaching as a second career only, the ideal profile has altered.

The aim today might be a teaching force where 20 per cent were in their 20s, 30 per cent in their 30s, 30 per cent in their 40s and the remaining 20 per cent aged between 50 and retirement.

The UK is not alone in having a teaching force that does not match the desired age pattern. In fact, the age profile of our teachers is less alarming than that of many other developed countries.

We do, however, have a shortage of teachers in their 30s and more 40-somethings than might be considered ideal.

The early-retirement boom that started about 10 years ago and lasted until the change in the Pensions Regulations in 1997, actually helped to smooth out the UK profile by providing a phased - albeit unplanned - exit for many older teachers.

In turn, this allowed vacancies to be created for new entrants to the profession.

Elsewhere in Europe, and especially in Germany, Italy, Sweden and The Netherlands, the age profile is much more skewed. Almost four-fifths of German primary teachers (78 per cent) are aged over 40. In Sweden the figure is over 74 per cent, in Italy 68 per cent and in Holland 64 per cent.

Even allowing for the fact that students leave higher education later in these countries, and higher retirement ages, it is clear that large numbers of teachers will leave the profession in a few years time.

However, many secondary schools abroad face even bigger staffing problems. In the UK, only three in five teachers are over 40 and one in five over 50. But in Italy, over four in five secondary teachers are over 40 and nearly two in five are over 50.

Even in the UK, the large numbers of teachers in their 40s poses problems for the next few years. Although the Government no longer recognises the concept of early retirement, it is still a fact of life for many teachers.

Assuming that most UK teachers aim to retire somewhere between 57 and 60 - having paid off their mortgage and with little more to gain in pension by staying on until 60 in a low-inflation economy - we may see retirements start to rise sharply from about 2006 onwards.

The peak will be around the turn of the decade before numbers retiring start to decline rapidly after about 2015.

Happily for policy-makers in the UK, primary pupil numbers are already falling, and, even with a class-size reduction policy in place, there should be less pressure on teacher supply in this sector.

But UK secondary rolls will not peak until at least 2004, and class sizes are close to their worst for a generation. As there is also an urgent need to improve the skills mix among secondary teachers, staffing is likely to remain a headache for ministers beyond the life of this Parliament.

It may be worth trying to train as many secondary teachers as possible in the UK during any economic downturn. Such trainees would provide a reservoir of talent for the future, even if some do not immediately find full-time posts.

The alternative is to wait until the retirement boom arrives before taking action. But any delay could mean that the peak of the next vacancy cycle may be even worse than the present one.

John Howson is managing director of Education Data Surveys. Email

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