Ministers agreed to train more teachers despite knowing that many will be left jobless this year. Fran Abrams asks why
The Government's pledge to put more teachers in classrooms has long been a key part of its strategy to stay in power. So it was inevitable that Prime Minister Tony Blair would face questions about teacher recruitment when he took to the web in July to chat online about education.
When a member of the public asked about teacher shortages, he was able to respond proudly that they were a thing of the past.
"People are coming forward in record numbers to teacher-training courses and there is now fierce competition for places at teacher-training institutions," he said.
Indeed, the drive to recruit more trainee teachers seems to have hit the nail on the head. So successful has it been that in many areas the problem is not teacher shortages but teacher unemployment.
The TES reported last week that more than a quarter of this year's newly-trained primary teachers were still looking for jobs. As a result, ministers now face the possibility that their recruitment campaign was little more than a massive waste of public money.
And despite a rising level of unemployment, the recruitment drive goes on.
More than 40,000 trainees will begin courses this autumn - a rise of about 8,000 in two years. In the primary sector, where job shortages are most pronounced, the number of extra trainees has risen by a huge 16 per cent in two years.
While money is being pumped into teacher training, not enough cash has been pumped into primary schools to induce them to snap up the new entrants. The latest government statistics show that the number of nursery and primary teachers in post rose by more than 9,000 between 1998 and 2002, but dropped back again in subsequent years.
There is a simple explanation for this: primary schools have experienced falling rolls, so in some cases they have been forced to make staff cuts.
Pupil numbers have fallen by 300,000 since they peaked at 4.3 million in 1999, so the extra teachers are now surplus to requirements.
Government statisticians have been aware that this would happen for more than a decade, and the dip in birth rate will begin to filter into secondary schools this year. Yet ministers have persisted in allocating extra teacher-training places in the hope that they could help to reduce class sizes.
Recruitment expert Professor John Howson of Oxford Brookes university says the problem is partly a political one. With workforce reforms aimed at giving primary teachers more non-contact time in a couple of years, ministers must show that they can provide more staff to cover for them - even if it means this year's trainees end up in the dole queue.
"If you don't increase the number of training places, you are signalling that you aren't funding the reforms properly. If you increase the number, you risk making some of the trainee teachers sacrificial lambs on the altar of government policy. I suspect that is what's happening," he says.
Professor Howson believes that the education system cannot respond to the rise in teacher numbers because of a shortage of funds. More money is going into the system at the top, he says, but it does not always filter down to the right place.
He adds: "Part of the problem is that the Government doesn't understand how the model of funding operates. It's a 'hopper' model - the money goes into a hopper at the top and filters down through a number of other hoppers until it gets to schools.
"Fewer pupils means less funding, so even though there may be more money going in at the top, it is not reaching schools."
As the drop in the birthrate works its way through into the secondary phase, the effect will continue. But it will hit some schools harder than others.
In the North-east, the number of pupils aged five to 14 will drop by 10 per cent in the next decade, but the fall will be less than half of that in London and the South-east.
Professor Howson believes that specialist schools will be able to compensate by casting their net wider for pupils, although the "bog standard" comprehensives could be left struggling.
In a couple of years' time, these extra teachers will be needed - partly on account of the workforce reforms, but also because the first generation of women to work throughout their careers are now close to retirement.
"The problem is, you are operating in a market - and markets tend to underestimate or overestimate," says Professor Howson.
Of course, the over-supply of newly-qualified teachers in some areas is not necessarily a problem. Indeed, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, welcomes it.
"Secondary heads want to have a better choice of staff than they've had in recent years," he says.
"I think it's significant that this year SHA hasn't done a teacher-shortage survey - because the situation in most parts of the country has improved."
Dr Dunford believes that even new trainees who do not get jobs in schools this year could still be valuable assets to the education system in the future.
"It's important to have a good pool of teachers," he says.
"Even if some of them can't get jobs immediately, careers are becoming more flexible. People with teaching qualifications may take up posts in schools later - I can think of a number of examples of people who have done that."
In the teacher-training colleges, tutors watch anxiously as their charges leave to embark on an uncertain future. While schools may be able to shrug off these difficulties, the colleges cannot.
Ann Slater, head of the University of East London's school of education and community studies, says its London-based trainees are still in demand, but there are serious problems in other parts of the country. And for many newcomers, a move to London or the South-east is not an option.
"There is an assumption that if you train somewhere and don't find a job, you can simply move to an area where there are teacher shortages," says Ms Slater. "But that is often not easy. Even with the London living allowances, many people cannot afford to do it. By and large, people want to work where they train."
But ministers have little time for such personal difficulties. From the Government's perspective, it was clearly more desirable to train thousands of teachers for unemployment than it was to cut training places and risk sparking a political row.
With education likely to be at the top of the agenda once more in next year's general election, that move might prove to have been a smart one.