Local recruitment policy may be counter-productive;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
The new Government is likely to face a shortage of teachers, Andy Hudson warns

The London Institute of Education has analysed the job vacancies in The TES over three recent weeks. Although caution is needed in interpreting the results, they are disturbing - more than 2,700 primary and nearly 7,000 secondary posts have been advertised. A closer look at the figures indicates particular shortages in those areas designated as priority subjects by the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) - secondary maths, science, languages, technology and religious education. It is also worrying that nearly one in seven of the primary vacancies were for headteachers, who have such a key role in raising standards. Doubtless, the situation has been exacerbated by the impact of the early retirement debacle. But do these figures represent some sort of record in vacancy levels? Is the TTA facing a crisis in its recruitment strategy?

In last autumn's budget, the Department for Education and Employment's projected targets for all initial teacher education courses were unexpectedly slashed from a 26 per cent increase to a 6 per cent decrease for primary and from a 30 per cent increase to a 2 per cent increase for secondary, to the surprise of all those responsible for planning and resourcing such courses. Many of those affected wondered on what basis these figures, normally related to demographic trends, were adjusted so drastically. Was the imminence of an election responsible for masking a pending chronic shortage of teachers in our schools? How strong a role did the TTA believe it had, or has, in insisting upon accurate planning information and targets?

Whatever happened to the statistics, the fact is that the newly-elected administration is likely to have to tackle a looming shortage of qualified teachers during its first term. This shortage will almost certainly be exacerbated by a demographic bulge in the primary school population and Labour's policy to cut sizes in primary classrooms, combined with a continued, troubled image of secondary teaching and an increase in graduate opportunities in other professions.

A shortage of entrants to the profession is not new. There has been no trend over the years or across subject areas and geographical regions. In the past, various schemes have been devised to bridge the gap in specific areas, for example the direct entry route for maths and science graduates, special allowances for working in urban districts and bursaries for mature entrants. In the 1980s, the Department of Education and Science-funded unit, TASC (Teaching As A Career), conducted nationwide promotion campaigns through the media and university careers services.

TASC is now defunct. The DFEE has handed over this responsibility as well as its funding to the TTA. The agency reports a annual recruitment and supply budget of pound;10 million. Some of this is being used in national advertising of a particularly ineffective nature with teacher education and training institutions now expected to bid for money from the budget to run individual recruitment schemes. The Institute of Education, like all other institutions, is awarded funds for this purpose after setting out and addressing a complex set of criteria relating to bursaries for specific categories of student, newspaper advertisements, funded travel abroad schemes and recruitment roadshows. All institutions are responsible for devising, bidding for and implementing these schemes - in addition to running the courses themselves. This expensive exercise may be missing the point.

There is a good reason to suppose that, rather than attracting larger numbers of new applicants to the profession, our competing schemes are simply redistributing existing applicants around the country. An instance at the Institute of Education last year illustrates this point. An applicant accepted a place on our secondary postgraduate certificate in education course; as a scientist, this person was eligible for a special bursary under our TTA-funded scheme. Shortly after he accepted the place, this student contacted us to say that he was withdrawing to take up a place at another institution where the bursary on offer was pound;500 more.

This suggests that the enormous amount of bureaucracy engendered in the current arrangement could be counter-productive. Should the energies of busy course-leaders all over the country be deployed in devising individual recruitment and marketing strategies and spending hours answering questions and framing bids for funds to campaign on what is a national issue? The TTA obviously believes that this is the best way to tackle the question of teacher recruitment, but is it?

Andy Hudson is course leader of the secondary postgraduate certificate in education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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