After two years of comparatively healthy recruitment to initial teacher training, and in spite of a 6 per cent rise in the number of secondary places available, the numbers applying for the crucial maths, science and languages PGCE courses this autumn have fallen dramatically. Last year's targets for shortage subjects were almost achieved. This year, however, they will clearly not be, with only four applicants in physics for every five last year.
To satisfy the increased demand as secondary rolls grow, the number of teachers to be trained in maths and languages was due to rise from this autumn by more than 10 per cent. But the numbers applying for maths have fallen by 10 per cent since last year. The fall in languages is even greater and there are bound to be unfilled places on secondary training courses, as well as concern about the quality of recruits.
Shortages of specialist secondary teachers have already been widely predicted. The chairman of the Teacher Training Agency, Geoffrey Parker, warned earlier this year that an upturn in the economy would create a "crisis" in secondary teacher recruitment over the next two or three years similar to that of the late 1980s; a view echoed by Professor Alan Smithers who pointed out that there would be a demand elsewhere for people with good analytical skills and ability with numbers, once the economy picked up.
Solid evidence that graduates really are enjoying brighter employment prospects is sketchy. But the existence of more attractive opportunities may not be the only factor; specialist subject teaching to the full range of adolescents may also lack appeal - particularly for male graduates. In contrast to the drop in secondary applications, those for primary teacher training where women predominate are up by 12 per cent, despite a 6 per cent reduction in planned intakes. The fall in applications for secondary specialisms is largely accounted for by fewer applications from male graduates. The numbers of women applying for physics and maths courses have fallen by just 8 and 0.8 per cent whereas the numbers of men fell by 20 per cent for physics and 14 per cent for maths.
But is it the nature of the job or the career prospects that is putting them off? Someone should be finding out as a matter of urgency.
The government department responsible for ensuring adequate numbers of properly trained teachers remains mute on recruitment; the Department for Education and Employment has, as the STRB noted earlier this year, quietly ceased to publish projections of teacher supply and demand.
It is true that prediction has become more complicated since locally managed schools began using staff more flexibly. Total teacher numbers between 1989 and 1994 remained broadly the same but some 12,700 full-time posts were replaced by an equivalent number of part-timers, most of whom are returners to the profession. Indeed, it is reckoned that over half the teachers now being recruited are returners rather than newly qualified teachers. And over that same period the numbers of classroom support staff have grown by nearly a third though pupilteacher ratios have worsened.
No doubt the department's staffing models can be tweaked to take account of such factors. But published recruitment predictions would reveal the DFEE's assumptions about teacher pupil ratios at a time when the Government is not fully funding teachers' salaries. In effect, then, it would spell out uncomfortably clearly just how big a rise in class sizes is inherent in Government policy even if targets are met.