Thanks ... but no thanks

12th September 1997 at 01:00
The lead stories in The TES throughout the past few weeks have focused on teacher shortages, the latest in a long line of reports which indicate a shortfall which, for secondary mathematics and science, is starting from a relatively low base. Figures for recruitment into initial teacher training in maths and science were below target in 199596 (21 per cent and 18 per cent respectively). However, these figures mask a further reduction in those attaining qualified teacher status, that is the number of students who withdraw from training.

This type of "wastage" represents a further, somewhat hidden shortage in the supply of suitably qualified teachers. It also causes problems with respect to the relationship between higher education institutions and their partnership schools as students, for whom schools have made arrangements for teaching practice, withdraw at short notice.

There is little point in attracting more people into initial teacher training if a sizeable proportion of those who apply for places withdraw before gaining teacher status. The Graduate Teacher Training Registry's (GTTR) own figures show that for those accepted on secondary maths and science courses, withdrawal rates are 17 per cent and 19 per cent. Of 3, 637 science applicants for the year 199596, some 677 did not complete their training.

Research into the reasons why people withdraw from courses is hindered by the lack of information held. Most institutions destroy the records of students who withdraw from PGCE courses and the GTTR was unable to furnish us with any detail about the qualifications of those who drop out, nor their reasons for doing so. It is an area that has largely been ignored by those involved in promoting teaching as a career.

With funding from the Teacher Training Agency we endeavoured to look into why students withdraw from PGCE courses. Questionnaires were sent to 120 people, from across the country who had withdrawn from mathematics or science courses (response rate 50 per cent).

Surprisingly, the vast majority of respondents (84 per cent) claimed that they had wanted to make teaching their career. We do not believe there is any reason for this response to be untrue and so it seems that applicants to courses reflect a sincere commitment rather than a cynical policy of seeing teaching as a "last resort". This view is supported by the finding that when students withdrew only 30 per cent of respondents had received an offer of employment, suggesting that few were using it as a stop-gap until they received a "better offer":

Due to the debt I had acquired as an undergraduate and PhD student I was forced to consider full-time employment. Another year living on a grant would have pushed me further into debt. If the grant was larger I would possibly have stayed on the course ... the low pay teachers receive was another reason I pulled out. Male chemistry graduate.

It was mainly women who stated that they had decided that teaching was not for them (32 per cent of respondents):

It was not the idea of teaching science it was more the state of the education system and the lack of classroom authority and teacher respect that changed my mind. The image of teaching as a career has lost a lot of appeal, not just the sciencemaths subjects specifically. Female biology graduate;

... only a lot of hard work, frustration, disrespect and poor pay. Mature female zoology graduate.

After I had viewed programmes about the teaching profession and the attitudes of students in this day and age I decided against becoming a secondary teacher ... it was obvious that there was no respect or discipline within schools. Female chemistry graduate.

Respondents aged over 30 were more likely than those in their twenties to cite financial or family reasons (often linked to the cost of child care) for withdrawal:

Amount of PGCE bursary would not cover child care costs - I would end up out of pocket - preferred to gain paid employment instead. Mature female maths graduate (now working as a school secretary).

Having withdrawn from the course, the older group were more likely to either be unemployed or in a temporary part-time position. This would seem to suggest that being unemployed or in low paid work preferable to embarking on a PGCE course and incurring further debt.

However there were other factors, beyond financial and social ones, that led to people withdrawing from their course. Those training to teach science often commented on the extra pressure resulting from the requirement to teach all three sciences:

... was primarily a theoretical physicist so teaching balanced science was a large strain. Male physics graduate.

Better pay and the opportunity to concentrate on biology and I'd be back in a flash. Mature male biology graduate.

Another area of concern was the perceived lack of support from the higher education instituteschool partnership:

Poor quality of support at schooluniversity. Male biology graduate;

The school department was predominantly male and seemed to hold the opinion that female teachers shouldn 't be teaching maths #201; these teachers were making my life unbearable. Female maths graduate;

There was little assistance from teachers. Mature female chemistry graduate.

None of these reasons for withdrawal is insurmountable. It would seem sensible to try to address these issues in parallel with any new recruitment drive for the profession. This small-scale research suggests that more must be done not just to make people apply for ITT courses but also to encourage them to take up places when they are offered and stay to qualify.

Some strategies will be common to both objectives - increasing the level of grant payable to those undertaking ITT and working on the image of teaching as a profession at the very least. The HEIschool partnership arrangements, currently monitored under HMIOFSTED inspection of higher education training, should be strengthened to establish whether it is possible for schools to offer trainee teachers the support that they need during their first terms in school.

The reasons given for non-completion of courses need careful examination and data made readily available to all the partners involved in ITT. Only then can this hidden shortage be fully addressed.

Sally Taverner and Vivienne Baumfield are lecturers in the department of education University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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