Has teacher training become a victim of its own success?
Cuts have become a familiar word in this new age of austerity - and now it seems the supposedly booming teacher-training market is the latest to be affected. But it is success, not failure, that is responsible for money being taken away from those wanting to enter the profession. Millions of pounds spent to prevent teacher shortages have been so effective that officials say they are no longer needed.
Bursaries were introduced in 2000 to tempt the best graduates into teaching. This year, for the first time, recruitment targets have been met and the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) says there is no need to offer financial inducements on this scale.
From 2010, many PGCE students will find the cash on offer reduced by a third. The TDA made the announcement during the peak autumn period for course applications, saying a permanently changed attitude to the profession, and the arrival of a global economic downturn, will mean that many of the best graduates will look favourably on teaching as a career choice regardless of financial inducements.
But others are worried that this new confidence comes too soon and argue that it is far too early to judge what will happen to recruitment if the recession ends.
The effect on trainees is so far unknown. But 201011 looks set to be a tough year, with changes to grants, as well as reductions to the number of PGCE places to contend with.
From 2010, trainees specialising in modern languages, music and RE will see their cash cut to pound;6,000 from pound;9,000, while those doing courses in PE, art, business studies, citizenship, dance and drama, and history will receive just pound;4,000, down from pound;6,000. But those studying to teach the sciences, maths and IT - still considered priority subjects - will continue to receive pound;9,000.
The changes also penalise those taking biology and combined or general science, who will see their bursaries reduced from pound;9,000 to pound;6,000.
Bursaries were originally conceived as a "market intervention" to increase the number of graduates applying to teacher training rather than as a mechanism to help the poorest students become teachers. They were never akin to old-fashioned maintenance grants.
However, there can be little doubt that the money comes in useful for less affluent students. Doing a PGCE is an expensive undertaking: in addition to course fees, and the rising cost of living, trainees must fund the cost of travel to often far-distant teaching placements.
So should the bursary be regarded as a hardship fund rather than simply an incentive to do the course? And is it fair that all students, regardless of personal wealth, are entitled to the same sum?
Most trainee teachers have already racked up thousands of pounds worth of debt while studying for a degree by the time they sign up for teacher training. As a result, many do their PGCE at a university near home so they can save money by living with parents.
News of the cuts has spread. At Manchester University, those on this year's course are concerned, even though they will escape the cuts. Manchester University Students' Union postgraduate and mature students officer Chris Jenkinson is concerned.
"I think the onus now is on the TDA to prove this won't adversely affect people coming to train. They do perceive this money as support, even though it's not designed to be," he says.
"We need to take trainee teachers on merit, not just because they can afford to do the course."
Universities have been obliged to provide more bursaries of their own since tuition fees were introduced, but these often total just a few hundred pounds. The average fee for a PGCE is around pound;3,000.
The Government provides means-tested grants - a maximum of pound;2,906 - which are designed to fund course costs, but from September 2010 postgraduate trainees will have to take out bigger loans to support themselves after ministers decided to cut grants for all those from families with a household income of more than pound;34,000.
Cambridge University, so often the scourge of accusations of elitism, provides generous support packages for PGCE students. The TDA cuts mean that the university will inevitably pay out even more in bursaries.
The maximum on offer at Cambridge is pound;3,400. This is means tested and is adjusted in line with how much the student receives from the TDA. But according to the students' union, this has not succeeded in attracting less well-off applicants to Cambridge. Student representatives believe cash incentives are still needed.
"Despite our bursaries being deliberately generous, we don't have a disproportionate number of poorer students," says Cambridge University Students' Union education officer Sam Wakeford.
"Teaching is an immensely valuable profession and we should be funding it better," he says. "Those with the best grades should be wanting to do the job, but there's no extra government money set aside to encourage them - salaries are not as high as they could be."
The National Union of Students says bursaries are essential, particularly because the course leaves trainees with little opportunity to undertake part-time work.
CUSU deputy president Aaron Porter hopes to have a meeting with the TDA to discuss the cuts. "Teachers are among the most valuable people in public service, and we think these changes should have been more thought through," he says.
"Coming at a time when places on courses are cut, this is a double whammy. They would have been graduating with a record amount of debt - something which is going to make them think twice about considering teaching. These cuts might be the final deterrent."
The problem could become even more pronounced for the significant number of mature students studying for PGCEs - universities say they find the year particularly tough financially. They tend to be more dependent on bursaries, having given up jobs while continuing to support families.
"They will be the students who will be most disappointed by the reduction," says Debra Myhill, head of Exeter University's Graduate School of Education.
"But I think PGCE students have got used to different rates, and those doing certain subjects having less."
Of more pressing concern to universities is the potential impact of the bursary cuts on recruitment. Last month's figures show that applications to primary and secondary postgraduate courses for 200910 were up 12 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively, compared with the same point in 2008. Applications are up across all secondary subjects without exception, including maths (up 52 per cent), chemistry (39 per cent) and physics (49 per cent).
Most PGCE applications are submitted from September to November, but students can apply right up until the summer, so it will not be clear until the New Year if numbers have been affected by bursary cuts. The Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers is calling for the effect on recruitment to be monitored.
According to John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, bursury cuts could destabilise teacher numbers. He argues that the TDA should not rely on the economic downturn to do the recruiting.
"It is an erroneous assessment to think all that needs to be done is rely on factors in the market," he says. "It will jettison the structured approach which has worked well in attracting the best students rather than a short-sighted and opportunist policy like this.
"The TDA needs to maintain their work in looking for trainees with the right ethics and commitment to make a difference to children's lives."
There is also concern at Westminster. Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Laws warns: "At a time of crisis for modern languages in our schools, it is particularly bizarre and unwise to cut the bursaries given to trainee language teachers.
"There is a real problem in attracting talented people into the teaching profession. Trainee teachers on university-based courses often have a real struggle making ends meet."
While "market intervention" in the form of bursaries appears to have succeeded in warding off teacher shortages for now, there is widespread concern that the profession is ill-prepared to deal with the fall-out from impending cuts.
THE NUMBERS GAME
In 1997, teacher vacancies were rising and trainee numbers falling, but the new Labour government denied there was a crisis and said there was no need for financial incentives.
A target of 10,000 more teachers by 2006 was set, with new bursaries (introduced in 2000) to help meet it. The target was hit in 2002, when there was a 12 per cent rise in numbers on training courses.