Sporting chances

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
The Teacher Training Agency's recent #163;1.5 million glossy advertising campaign linking high profile figures with the teachers they were indebted to was the Government's belated response to the present humdinger of a teacher shortage. But despite, or possibly because of, Tony Blair extolling the virtues of his favourite public schoolmaster, the figures continue to be depressing.

Maths, science, modern languages - even art and humanities - all are failing to attract students in the numbers needed to replace the teachers now leaving the profession in droves. The one bright star in this troubled sky, with applications for teacher training currently running at double the places the TTA has allowed, is physical education.

PE students, it seems, haven't got the message. The traditional explanation for this - which, not to put too fine a point on it, would focus on PE's low-brow reputation - doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Leeds Metropolitan University's PE course attracts 1,500 applicants for just 70 places. They average 20 points - a B and two Cs.

"Nearly all of last year's cohort had A-levels that would have got them on to other courses," says Mick McManus, Leeds Metropolitan's principal lecturer in teacher education. "Almost 30 per cent had grade A or B in a national curriculum subject other than PE. Seventy per cent had grade C or better. If our 70 first-years had not chosen PE they could have included 15 teachers of English, 11 of geography, nine of science, six of history, three each of modern languages and religious education, and one each of maths, technology and music."

Earlier this year, TTA chief executive Anthea Millett be-moaned the state of affairs which saw other graduates coming into teaching with Ds and Es at A-level, or poor degrees. A third of science or maths teachers come into the profession with third class honours or lower.

At Loughborough University, Graham Broadbent is a typical example of the kind of student that the TTA is crying out for. He has three As at A-level and is doing PE because at school he experienced teachers who be-came role models, staff who demonstrated high levels of commitment to their students.Is this kind of positive relationship the answer to recruitment problems?

"Yes," says Peter Lee, director of physical education at the Crewe and Alsager faculty of Manchester University. But he also argues that the situation is linked to the higher profile of sport in general. "GSCE and A-level PE has gone through a huge growth in the past 10 years," he says. "There's no doubt that students get an academic interest at an early age."

But the high numbers are also linked to the fact that PE students have often been able to test drive their interest in working with children."It stems from their own experience," says Peter Lee. "They've had a chance to work with children before they get here. Is that the case in other subjects? If I'm interested in maths, how do I find out whether I might enjoy working with young people? PE students will have helped out with younger kids at school clubs and outside in the sports club. They've got some experience, they know whether they are going to like it or not."

Mr McManus' students say they had enjoyed the subject at school and, crucially, that they were encouraged to go into PE teaching by their PE teachers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that other teachers are actively dissuading students from entering the profession - for familiar reasons, says Mr McManus. "Too much assessment, too many meetings, too much paperwork, too much abuse from politicians."

Fourth-year Crewe and Alsager student Lucy Parker feels that the key difference is the nature of sport itself. "We've all been successful in sport and we want to stay in it as long as we can." She says PE offers a closer contact with the learning process and more immediate feedback. "It's not like other subjects where the book gets taken in and the mark comes a week later. In PE, someone does something well and they can be told straight away. That makes a big difference." Other students in her group say PE offers more opportunities for teamwork in an atmosphere of success.

Sarah Hammond, a student at Leeds Metropolitan, understands the reluctance of graduates to go into other subjects. "It had to be PE. I didn't enjoy maths. You get teamwork and co-operation in other subjects, but not as much as in PE."

The high quality of students will in a few years mean schools have heads of PE who have better A-levels and better degrees than peers in other subjects. Traditionally PE has not been a route to senior management, with staff often moving into pastoral posts. This reflects the classroom management skills needed to take third-years out on to the field with a dozen javelins - but the head's office has in the past been closed. This too may soon change.

The president of the Secondary Heads Association, Judith Mullin, comes from a background in PE. She says the current re-emphasis on community education and the rise of sports colleges could open up new opportunities for PE teachers. "In the United States it's always been a route to the principal's office, and community involvement does give the PE specialist that edge." She argues that senior management potential is about leadership and management skills.

"It's a cliche - but at the end of the day it's about teams and players. My management approach is based on getting the best out of people." Judith Mullin says that five years ago the PE candidates coming into teaching were not as strong, but that the current crop can look forward to real career prospects.

Maybe the national curriculum in the next century will specify PE with everything else optional. At least they'd be able to staff it.

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