Way off target

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Ad campaigns in cinemas and glossy magazines are missing the point about teacher recruitment, writes Viv Ellis

Reading the newspapers last September, you'd think we'd never had it so good in terms of recruitment to PGCE courses. Features on career-changers were everywhere. Indeed, one of my own excellent students, a former television newsreader, even made the front page of the The TES. And, of course, the Teacher Training Agency was quick to claim what it saw as a great success for its recruitment strategy.

We've all seen the ad campaigns - "Those who can, teach" or "Nobody forgets a good teacher", on television, in the cinema and in newspapers, on billboards and even on beer mats. All this cost pound;10.6 million in 2002. The fast-track teacher scheme has cost another pound;13m in administration costs alone and is another high-profile number with free-flowing promotional goodies such as the fast-track umbrella. And yet, although applications to PGCE courses are up, recruitment nationally to secondary PGCEs can be difficult: there are still fewer students completing these courses than in 1997, and only a tiny net gain to the profession each year.

The campaigns don't work and the money is being squandered. Serious applicants to PGCE courses - those likely to turn up, complete the course and begin their NQT year - have altruistic motives, and are unlikely to be swayed by glossy advertising.

This is how much it doesn't work: in the case of fast-track, each of the scheme's recruits in its first two years has cost the taxpayer more than pound;50,000 in consultancy fees, and not all of them went into teaching.

That's an awful lot of wasted umbrellas.

Neither is the pound;6,000 training bursary such a great incentive: a survey of more than 300 teachers conducted by the National Association for the Teaching of English found that only about half the teachers asked felt the bursary was relatively important.

So why do people want to become teachers? Research from the National Foundation for Educational Research shows people are attracted into the profession by the prospect of working with children, an attachment to an academic subject, the potential to make a difference to children's life chances, and the element of autonomy and independence associated with a professional job. What puts them off? Workload, relatively poor pay and the ways in which they feel society regards teachers. According to a recent poll by the General Teaching Council for England, the morale of teachers early in their career is most often dented by poor pupil behaviour.

So how can the Government recruit and retain more teachers without wasting such a ridiculous amount of money? Well, I don't want to see the demise of the training bursary. It is not a significant factor in attracting trainees, but it is still important for others and probably a key means of support and encouragement for older career-changers. But it could be improved by differentiating the rate at which the bursary is paid according to age.

As for younger trainees, with an average of pound;11,000 in debts, they need all the help they can get. The bursary should be paid to final year BEd, BA and QTS students too. Any further debt from university "top-up" fees can only serve to make training to teach an impossible option for some.

Solving the problems of recruitment and retention is more complex. Teaching needs to be re-professionalised. The guidance and encouragement to become a teacher often comes from friends, family and other teachers rather than glossy magazines.

First, give teachers back the autonomy and independence that motivate prospective trainees, and be seen to do so publicly. This doesn't mean dumping the national curriculum - it means creating the space and support for the creativity and ideas of new teachers to flourish. If the Government seeks to "transform teaching and learning" it should recognise transformation is most powerful when it is "bottom-up".

Second, keep teachers learning. There is a lot of talk about continuing professional development. The reality is that there has been a gradual erosion in the provision of CPD, and fewer teachersare working on higher degrees and professional qualifications. The Best Practice Research Scholarship scheme offered some hope but the Government recently shut it down.

Third, give early-career teachers the training and support they need to manage behaviour - and help sustain morale and commitment.

All of this is possible if the Government shifts its attitude. It is not just a question of more money, but money spent differently - and recognising that a teaching career is not something you can sell as a commodity with beer mats and umbrellas.

Viv Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University

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