Mature students tell Susannah Kirkman how they try to find a way around financial roadblocks. The prospect of mounting debts is beginning to deter would-be teachers and could jeopardise Government plans to expand the teaching force.
Thirty-four-year-old Martin Newton is the sort of person the Teacher Training Agency wants to attract. A former landscape gardener, he decided to switch careers because he wanted to help young people like himself. "I went through the system making as little effort as possible. I eventually did my GCSEs and A-levels at night school," he says.
Martin is now a BEd student in secondary maths, a shortage subject, at Manchester Metropolitan University. The Government needs to recruit 47 per cent more secondary teachers by 2001, yet Martin is forced to struggle against considerable financial obstacles to achieve his ambition. To make ends meet, he still works part-time as a gardener but will face debts of up to Pounds 7,000 when he graduates in two years' time.
"You want to put something back into the community, but it's extremely difficult to do it. For the people on my course, the biggest problem is finance. It's extremely discouraging and demotivating," he says. "But there's no alternative."
Martin reckons that he would be unable to do the course without his wife's earnings as a full-time nursing sister. They have a mortgage, and child-care costs for their four-year-old son amount to Pounds 4,000 a year. To Martin's dismay, the mature students' allowance of Pounds 1,200 a year was abolished just after he started his course, reducing his budget by 25 per cent at a stroke. "I really was worried about whether I would be able to continue. "
Angela Carver, a 31-year-old single parent with two young children, came off benefit to train as a maths teacher, and is now paying dearly for her initiative. For example, she is no longer entitled to free prescriptions or income support.
Angela made a huge effort to survive the first year without taking out a student loan. But when she applied for income support during the summer vacation, she discovered that she was ineligible because she had not taken out a loan. "It was a real Catch-22 situation, because if I had taken out the loan, I would have had too much money to qualify," she says. Angela still had to pay the rent, plus retainer fees for her three-year-old daughter's nursery place, so she had to go into the red. She has now taken out a student loan to pay off her overdraft.
"You've really got to be dedicated to last the course," says Daniel Hartley, whose first year on a secondary maths BEd course at Manchester Metropolitan University cost him Pounds 5,000. Because he had not completed a previous degree at Salford University, Daniel had to find the money for his fees as well as his living expenses. To pay his way, he worked 30 hours a week in a duty-free shop at Manchester airport.
He studied maths as part of his Salford course and has now switched to a two-year maths BEd; he gets his fees paid and has been able to give up his part-time job. Daniel says that finance is a particular problem for trainee teachers because they are not free to work during their teaching practice and the length of the term means a lot of holiday jobs have already been taken by other students by the time they are available for work. Travelling and respectable clothes for teaching practice are an extra expense.
"Other students don't have to wear suits," says Daniel wryly. Also, student teachers may have to pay rent for two flats if their teaching practice is far away.
Students say that financial hardship is not the only problem. They are also worried by the rigidity of the loan repayment mechanism. "It's a big deterrent having to pay the loan back within five years, just when you're trying to get established," says Navin Sukram, a secondary maths BEd student who is vice-president of the students' union at Exeter University. After three years, he is more than Pounds 3,000 in debt and his parents will have to fund his last year. According to the latest Barclays Student Debt Survey, 36 per cent of students cited parents as their main source of income.
Unfortunately, few mature students are either able or willing to rely on their parents. "I shall only be earning for about 24 years after I qualify," explains Martin Newton. "But if I were going into a profession earning Pounds 40, 000 to Pounds 50,000 a year, the debt would be wiped out in a flash." Repayment is triggered as soon as graduates' earnings reach Pounds 15,792 per annum, which is just above point four on the teachers' salary scale. A young teacher qualifying in 1997 with an average loan of Pounds 5,070 will be repaying Pounds 84.50 a month to the Student Loans' Company. Meanwhile, proposals by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to charge students tuition fees could increase the bill to around Pounds 23,000 for teachers with a first degree and a PGCE; the Teacher Training Agency funds PGCE and BEd courses.
The TTA is trying to cushion the financial shock for teachers in shortage areas. Under the priority subject recruitment scheme, universities can bid for cash to offer as bursaries. So far, they have only been available to PGCE students, but the TTA has said that it will consider bids to support BEd students in shortage subjects. Martin Newton has a more radical solution. He thinks trainee teachers on teaching practice should be paid, like student nurses or junior doctors.