In November, skills minister John Hayes defused a crisis in the recruitment of FE teachers by announcing a bursary system to offset the impact of higher fees for training. And then, nothing. As universities and colleges report seeing potential students walk away because of a lack of financial support, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) maintains a "crypto-Trappist" silence.
That is the phrase of James Noble-Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers. He used a speech to the Association of South East Colleges on Wednesday to criticise the government's failure to deliver on Mr Hayes' promise: to offer bursaries that rival the maximum of pound;20,000 for the most highly qualified would-be schoolteachers in shortage subjects.
FE's teaching body, which takes on about 20,000 new trainees a year, is generally made up of older recruits. A number of these are beginning a second career and, in many cases, take a pay cut in order to pass on their skills. Teacher training organisations have warned that this combination of factors makes the idea of taking on 30-year loans to fund higher course fees even less attractive.
"If you price potentially good teachers out of the market, you damage people's education. It is as simple as that," Mr Noble-Rogers said. "Why would someone with a mortgage and other commitments leave a steady career to work in what is already a volatile and uncertain sector (when they) have to pay for the privilege of doing so?"
The frustration is all the greater because trainers of FE teachers thought they had won the battle. For about a year, organisations from the Institute for Learning to the University and College Union warned that recruitment would be harmed by the dramatic hike in university fees. BIS commissioned a report from the Association of Colleges, which recommended that FE teacher training should be protected from fees in the same way that some science subjects are. But no action was taken.
Eventually, Mr Hayes told the Association of Colleges' annual conference in November: "To ensure that our teachers are the best in the world and have access to higher education, I can announce today that we will introduce a bursary for initial teacher training."
Mr Hayes promised that the bursaries would be comparable to the programme for schools. However, Mr Noble-Rogers is now losing faith. He said that he suspects there may be no funding for bursaries beyond the existing pound;11 million scheme. In previous years, this has contributed pound;400 towards course fees - hardly enough when part-time students will pay more than 10 times that amount from September.
"The government believes that employers have a responsibility for training and developing their staff," Mr Noble-Rogers said. "That might make some sense if we are talking about Marks amp; Spencer or Tesco. But the ultimate employer - the body that provides most of the money for the salaries of teachers - is the government itself or, if you prefer, the taxpayer. Should government not, therefore, pay or at least contribute? Imposing an extra cost on colleges is, in effect, adding yet another squeeze on expenditure."
Mr Noble-Rogers said the most likely solution was that the government, college employers and individuals would all have to split the cost of training. But in the meantime, the uncertainty is damaging recruitment. "There is simply no excuse for the delays we are experiencing. Programmes are, as we wait, closing down and potential teachers are being lost. The government must act now," he said.
While it appears to be premature to say that FE teacher training programmes are closing down, teacher trainers have reported that the fees of pound;9,000 or pound;4,500 for part-timers have prompted some potential students to abandon their plans.
Jim Crawley, programme leader for lifelong learning at Bath Spa University's School of Education, said that he estimated numbers were down by 20-30 per cent on his 100-student course. "I run a small programme and my programme has to be considered at risk," he said. "The bursaries could be make or break for some people coming into the sector."
Asked why prospective FE teachers were being asked to sign up to courses without knowing what financial support was available, and what they could eventually expect, a BIS spokeswoman offered only this terse response: "We are in the process of finalising this year's bursary scheme and will be in a position to announce further details in the near future."
- About 20,000 people train as FE teachers each year.
- They face university fees of up to pound;9,000, or pound;4,500 for two-year, part- time courses.
- Current bursaries in FE are worth just pound;400.
- Would-be schoolteachers can apply for bursaries of up to pound;20,000 if they are highly qualified and applying to teach shortage subjects.
- FE lecturers can expect a starting salary of pound;23,000 to pound;27,000. Average salaries for mechanical engineers, ICT managers or civil engineers are between pound;35,000 and pound;45,000.
Original headline: Silence on promised bursaries leaves FE recruitment in limbo