These reckless PGCE cuts have left students in limbo - and college-based training in crisis

18th February 2011 at 00:00

At the beginning of October last year, the Graduate Teacher Training Registry opened its books for students to apply for PGCEs. Departments up and down the land started interviewing students a few weeks later. We did so, however, with a strange rider. We did not know how many students we were going to be able to take.

Nervous students, then, were met with the strange information that we could not tell them if they had definitely got a place because we had not yet been told by the Government how many places we were going to be given.

So the students that we liked received a letter from us saying that they were not rejected by us but neither were they unequivocally accepted. And this was the situation until last Wednesday, when, a full four months later, the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) gave the number of PGCE students to be accepted for next year. This on top of the fact that, on the previous weekend, prospective students had learned that unless they had picked one of the science, maths, engineering or modern foreign language courses, they would not receive a bursary while completing their qualification either.

This meant that some students had waited for nearly four months, in a kind of limbo, before discovering that they even had a place to take their PGCE. And if, for example, they were doing English or a humanities subject, they also found out that they had to get a further loan to do it, as opposed to getting a bursary.

Amy Meredith, a potential English candidate, who has wanted to teach since leaving school, and who taught in a year off between school and university, now wonders whether or not she can afford to do the course that she has always wanted to do. Another year's loan, on top of the three she has already taken, may prove too much. And there are countless students like her who are now having, suddenly, to weigh up whether or not they can afford to complete the PGCE unsupported by the money that they thought they had.

But theirs is not the worst tale. Take a religious education student: many of the RE courses had already filled up based on last year's numbers. King's College London, for example, had 18 places to offer last year as they had had for the past 10 years. The King's tutors had filled all these allocations because, if places are not taken up, the TDA exacts a fine from the college and each student over the quota costs the college the full extent of their fees. Because they were operating in the dark, the only information the King's tutors had was what they had been told last year. The Wednesday before last, it was announced that RE at King's had been cut from 18 places to just 10. Now they have the difficult task of telling eight of the potential students, who they had offered, albeit ambiguously, a place, that there was not one after all. It is the same across the country: RE has been cut across the board by 45 per cent.

The same is true of ICT and business studies. Music has been cut, and art. I could go on. There are many things that are harsh about this announcement. The first and most obvious is that they are cutting places in the middle of the year for next year's numbers. Telling students that they may or may not have a place next year based on a government whim is unfair. Even if they had to make cuts, which is a moot point, better surely to wait until the following year than cut back midway through the process.

The subjects that they have chosen to cut are also significant. The ones that have been most severely cut are all those that do not appear on education secretary Michael Gove's English Baccalaureate. ICT, which was big in the days of the last government, does not appear in the EBac and now it has had its places on the PGCE almost halved. The #163;9,000 bursary that students got, to encourage them to teach, has also disappeared. Business studies is another, as is design technology. RE is also not on the list, and this comes after protestations were made to Gove about its absence, given that it is a humanity, and compulsory to do in some way until a pupil is 16. The RE community thought their complaints had been heard, but apparently not.

Finally, there is the worry that this tolls the death knell for the PGCE in higher education. Gove has said that he distrusts what he calls "the education establishment". Although I am never sure what is meant by that label, you can be certain that Gove believes it resides in university departments. Move teacher education into schools, away from the apparently corrupting influence of university academics, and you will apparently solve your dilemma. It looks like the Teach First numbers have remained the same and, although it is not entirely clear, it looks like school-centred initial teacher training courses and graduate teacher programmes have also remained virtually untouched. This is peculiar since Ofsted's latest report says that college-based courses provide the best training for beginner teachers. With an education secretary so committed to facts and evidence, you would think he would pay some attention to these figures, but it seems that ideology has a way of interfering.

It looks like some education departments will have to close, or, if not departments, then individual subjects. As we speak, an RE department has said that having only five people on the course is too few to make it viable. The situation is grim and it does not look like it will get better any time soon.

Dr Bethan Marshall is senior lecturer in English education at King's College London.

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