University that opens door to success
Nearly 1,000 of the 1,150 students who embarked on the first 18-month course in 1994 earned their PGCE last summer and many of them - particularly those who trained in secondary schools - have found jobs.
A similar-sized cohort will qualify next summer and the third wave of 1,600 students will begin their studies next month. But the OU, which is now the biggest PGCE training institution in the country, has not found it easy to fill the increased number of places on the course that begins next month.
Nigel Pigott, the PGCE programme administrator, said: "We extended our period and spent more on advertising, about Pounds 100,000 altogether, but we still haven't met our targets. We have over-recruited in history to compensate for the shortfall in design and technology, the subject that's hardest to recruit for. We were aiming for 120 but only attracted 59."
The OU also managed to fill only 202 of the 260 science places and 121 of the 150 French places. The maths figures look better (143 of the 150 places were taken up) but Nigel Pigott said that there also appeared to be a dearth of prospective maths teachers. "I think it's true that teaching is becoming a less attractive proposition because we are moving out of recession," he said.
Like other training institutions, the OU has also struggled to attract men on to its PGCE course. Seventy-five per cent of its student teachers are women, but a high proportion of them are bucking the stereotype by taking maths and science courses. Two-thirds of the first batch of primary students had maths, science or technology backgrounds (the proportion has since fallen to half).
Contrary to pessimists' predictions, the OU also appears to be attracting students from regions where there are teacher shortages. "We do have some PGCE students in rural districts but most are in the major urban areas," said Nigel Pigott. "The biggest concentrations are in the London region, East Anglia, and Essex."
One of the distinctive features of the OU course is that students have to find a school that is prepared to help train them before they can submit a PGCE application. The task is made easier by the OU's promise of Pounds 1,000 plus a free computer to any school that will offer students 18 weeks of classroom experience. Nevertheless, some students have approached up to 50 before finding one that will take them.
Tracking down a job can also prove difficult for mature students, but Nigel Pigott says he has anecdotal evidence that OU-trained teachers are being appointed. "The vast majority seem to be successful," he said. "We've had messages from delighted former students saying they have been chosen in preference to 23-year-olds although they will cost schools more."
French specialist Neil Watt, 42, who took his PGCE after spending eight years as a police officer and 10 years in the financial service industry, is one of those who found a willing buyer for his talents. He is now on the staff of The Ridings, a Halifax comprehensive, and is still full of enthusiasm five months into the job.
"I suppose I have had a baptism of fire because both of my colleagues are off on sick leave," he said. "But I was able to consult the OU when I needed a little help with setting this month's mock GCSE tests. I simply sat down at the bedroom computer which is still linked to the OU and the help and moral support came flooding back."
Neil is also grateful for the support he received from the staff of St Augustine's, Clitheroe, during his training. "I had a lot of self-doubt at first because I hadn't spoken much French for some years - it's 20 years since I took a degree in French at Huddersfield Polytechnic - but they taught me how to handle difficult questions during that period when my vocabulary was returning. Now if anyone asks 'Sir, what's the French name for the lesser-spotted aardvark'? I can take it in my stride."