Lots of hard work for no money

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Melissa Coulthard on the real reasons behind teacher shortages.

With teaching such a turn-off for most graduates, there are serious shortages, especially in secondary school maths, science and modern languages. But why should undergraduates dismiss teaching as a career?

Early last year I asked 500 York university students to complete a questionnaire - and managed a 64 per cent response rate with only minimal bribery. Interviews with a sample of students who had not replied suggested the responses were representative.

Almost two in three of the students had considered teaching, but most had decided against it. They said that of the top 10 attributes they were looking for in a career, teaching provided just one - a sense of responsibility.

For them, teaching meant working in under-resourced conditions with too little pay, a heavy workload and too much bureaucracy. Most students saw the process of teaching quite positively, and one in two said changes to the profession might encourage them to teach. Those who were seriously considering teaching, and those who were not, agreed it had a lot to offer. All recognised it as a socially respected and valued career.

Students attracted to teaching were generally more altruistic, wanted to work with children and were less concerned with financial rewards than those who rejected it. All recognised that salaries were poor, especially in the long term, but those choosing to teach were prepared to sacrifice income for job satisfaction. All thought Ofsted inspections would be discouraging.

There were interesting differences in attitde between arts and science undergraduates. Fewer science students were intending to teach, but this was not because they felt less suited to it, or that they would enjoy it less, but because of poor pay and resources. There were better job opportunities with higher salaries and good facilities in the private sector.

These findings have implications for Government policies. First, its advertising campaign aimed at convincing potential teachers that it is a highly-respected job in which you can contribute to society is fundamentally flawed. Undergraduates already believe this, even those who do not want to teach. The Government is preaching expensively to the converted.

Second, planned improvements in resourcing do not go far enough. Pay and working conditions need to be seriously improved if good graduates are to be attracted into the profession, particularly scientists. There must be huge improvements in the working environment and a reduction in levels of bureaucracy. There also need to be greater opportunities for undergraduates studying non-national curriculum subjects to train as teachers.

Teaching is a career that appeals to more students than will eventually join it. For most, it simply cannot compete with the pay packets offered by the private sector. For them to take teaching seriously, teachers will need to be paid seriously.

Melissa Coulthard has recently completed an MA in educationat the University at York. Herthesis, A study of undergraduates' views of teaching as a possible career option, is available atthe JB Morrell Library, TheUniversity of York

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