Laws of physics will not ensure demand

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Anthea Millett, head of the Teacher Training Agency, has been frequently quoted in your columns recently on the need to increase the numbers of secondary science teachers, and teachers of other shortage subjects.

Many of my colleagues in initial teacher education report that the number of applicants in science is falling significantly, compared with 1994-95, and this is supported by figures from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry. Numbers for physics and chemistry teaching are falling even more rapidly.

One colleague suggested at a symposium at the annual meeting of the Association for Science Education in January that numbers of physics applicants by the end of this academic year could be as low as 20 per cent of those for the previous year.

At this stage in the academic year, the postgraduate science course at my own institution has been full, or nearly so. This year I have not even received sufficient applicants to fill my course, assuming they were all suitable. More than 60 per cent have degrees in biology, and only 12 per cent have degrees in physics, engineering, construction, or any area related to the teaching of physics. Applicants in physics are largely those aged 40-plus seeking alternative careers after redundancy.

Some will make excellent teachers, but their age makes their recruitment only a short-term solution to the supply problem. We need to recruit more young physics teachers. Colleagues in schools report low numbers of applicants for physics posts and I am frequently contacted by headteachers to recommend a student for their latest vacant positions.

The TTA has passed much of the responsibility for improving recruitment to individual institutions by asking them to create new schemes to encourage more applicants. Unfortunately, many of the likely reasons why recruitment is plummeting are not within thecontrol of individual institutions, such as:

* Ministers' frequent comments on bad teachers and precious little on positive aspects;

* Underfunding of maintained education leading to stagnation and reduction in recruitment by schools, further leading to larger workloads on teachers;

* Poorer conditions of employment arising from the need to provide more documentation to meet government directives;

* Inadequate time to implement imposed changes, lowering self-esteem in performing a good job;

* Withdrawal of a great deal of support from outside schools arising from the change in nature and responsibilities of the local education authorities. Alternative methods of support are being created but are not filling the gaps;

* An increase in the number of alternative opportunities for better-paid, more rewarding employment with better career prospects, as the recession lifts. The recession seems to have induced a sense of complacency in the Government since it kept numbers of applicants for initial teacher education high after numbers had been falling over some years.

What can be done in the short term, with the support of the TTA?

The agency could commission a new set of recruitment materials, including videos and CD-Roms.

The TTA could establish more securely the reasons why graduates are not willing to enter teaching. A survey could be done very quickly, and the results shared with colleagues responsible for recruitment to enable advertising to be targeted.

The TTA could establish a task group to produce ideas to promote recruitment. At present, teacher educator colleagues are snowed under with existing duties caused by staff reductions as a result of cuts in higher education funding and transfer of funding for initial teacher education to schools. The task group would have space to create and evaluate ideas to share with colleagues.

The TTA should bend the ears of ministers and others, such as chief inspector Chris Woodhead, to ensure that a balance of positive encouragement for good teaching is maintained along with suggestions for improvement. At present, the predominantly negative view is too demoralising.

A vigorous and rigorous retraining scheme, aimed at improving the skills of biology teachers in teaching chemistry and physics to a high level, should be implemented without delay, funded to include both the cost of releasing the teacher being retrained, and supporting the temporary replacement.

Without an enthusiastic and urgent approach, given the age profile of physical science teachers, the challenge of recruiting new teachers will only deepen, becoming intractable by the end of the decade. Teacher educators are willing to work with the TTA and the Government on this important issue and we look for opportunities to do so.

DR JOHN OVERSBY

Chair

Association of Science Education Tutors

University of Reading

Berkshire

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