Pit and the pendulum

5th July 1996 at 01:00
There is no shortage of contenders for the "Most difficult job in British education" title. But whoever has gained the new director of teacher supply post at the Teacher Training Agency - an announcement is due next week - may have the strongest claim of all.

What the Government is asking for is an annual intake of 40,000 student teachers by the start of the new millennium - 3,000 more than were being pulled into teaching at the height of the Emergency Training Scheme established after the Second World War. Three factors demand such a massive recruitment drive: an ageing teaching force (two-thirds of teachers are now aged 40 or over), the sharp increase in early retirement (teachers are retiring at 55 on average), and rising rolls (between now and 2000-2001 English school rolls will climb from 7,945,500 to 8,312,500). But it is highly questionable whether the TTA can achieve its recruitment goals because, as we reported a fortnight ago, universities and colleges are falling short of even their relatively modest 1996-97 targets. There is no dearth of would-be primary teachers. However, as Lucy Hodges's feature article (TES 2, page 3) makes clear, the easing of the recession means that young mathematicians and scientists are probably more loath than ever to teach in secondary schools. No wonder some colleges are having to accept candidates with disturbingly low qualifications. It is reassuring to hear that Leeds University (Letters, page 25) is still recruiting well-qualified candidates, but less prestigious colleges cannot be so choosy.

The problem of poorly-qualified teachers is not unique to Britain. Throughout the world teachers find themselves further down the occupational pecking order than high-status professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and lower entry standards are the inevitable consequence. Surveys by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have, however, confirmed that the public's lack of respect for teachers is a particular problem in Britain. Their status is higher than it was in the days of Macaulay, who said schoolmasters were "the refuse of all other callings ... to whom no gentleman would entrust the key to his cellar". But it is not high enough. John Howson (page 13) is probably right to postulate that soaps such as Grange Hill damage teachers' image. Television footage of militant teachers at union conferences does not help, either. But the constant criticisms of state education by Conservative and, latterly, Labour politicians, right-wing think tanks and the chief inspector must be even more damaging. As Mary Russell, of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, says: "The Government has to run a campaign saying that teaching is a vital job and we need the best people for it. At present it is doing the opposite."

Under those circumstances it is ironic that the Teacher Training Agency should argue that teachers must help to boost recruitment by stressing the positive aspects of their job. Strange, too, that it should invest so much hope in its ability to attract redundant executives and retreating members of the Hong Kong garrison.

It is much more likely that reinforcements will emerge from the PIT (the pool of inactive teachers). But the denizens of the PIT can be fickle - they filled 50 per cent of teaching vacancies in 1992, but only 19 per cent last year. Furthermore, although it is sometimes suggested that there are rich seams to exploit in the PIT only 73,000 of the 350,000 ostensibly inactive teachers are not in paid employment, and many presumably have no intention of returning to teaching. In any case, there is no doubt that "married returners" and mature students cannot answer all of the TTA's prayers. They are less mobile than younger teachers and less inclined to work in inner-city areas where staff shortages are most acute. It is heartening to learn (page 12) that London's 1,000 Antipodean supply teachers are well regarded, but the Government should have recognised, and remedied, the capital's teaching shortage long ago.

The TTA is also avoiding some unpleasant truths. It repeatedly points out that a 1995 survey found that only doctors are regarded as more socially useful than teachers. But such findings mean little to most young people. Research carried out for the National Commission on Education in 1993 showed that most undergraduates consider that teaching offers an unsatisfactory working environment and poor career and salary prospects. And the Institute for Employment Studies reported that a 1 per cent fall in relative teacher starting salaries led to a 4 per cent cut in the supply of graduates to teaching. That is worrying, given that teachers' salaries have fallen to just 2 per cent above the non-manual average.

It hardly needs to be added that the TTA would have a better chance of recruiting sufficient teachers if the Government were to stem the premature exodus from the profession and offer more financial carrots for potential secondary teachers, shortage-subject specialists and inner-city staff. A little less stick would also be advisable, but neither the present Government nor the Blair government-in-waiting wants to be seen to be "going soft" on teachers. Not before the general election, at any rate.

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