Where do we go from here?

12th January 2001 at 00:00
There is still much uncertainty about how the PGCE training salary will affect teacher recruitment. Phil Revell considers the pound;6,000 question.

Teacher recruitment worries reached boiling point over the New Year as a succession of news stories revealed the desperate situation facing the Teacher Training Agency in its task of finding enough bodies to fill the gaps in Britain's staffrooms.

Figures show fewer graduates applying to join the profession, despite the agency's high profile recruitment drive. Data for England from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry shows 2,289 fewer graduates applying for teaching, a fall of 16.1 per cent compared with the same time last year.

The Government insists it's too early to say what the overall graduate teacher training application figures for this year will be, and ministers are playing down stories about schools sending children home because they don't have enough teachers. They claim the problem is mainly confined to London and the south east. But research commissioned by the National Union of Teachers indicates that secondary heads in the West Midlands, Yorkshire, Humberside and Wales are having more trouble getting staff than their London colleagues.

Whatever the true situation, it appears that the pound;6,000 training salary for PGCE students hasn't had the dramatic effect that the Government was hoping for.

And while PGCE students dashed out to spend the dosh, there were wails of protest from three- and four-year BEd and BA QTS students, who couldn't see why the scheme rewarded one set of aspiring teachers while ignoring another.

"They're young people who have made the decision to be teachers, but they can't understand why they should be denied a training salary in their final year," says Anne Williams, head of school at King Alfred's College in Winchester.

The evident injustice of the pound;6,000 allowance is not the only issue. Teacher-training providers are concerned that payment of the training allowance to one type of entry route will have an effect on the decisions students make - and eventually the kind of courses institutions offer. "A lot of providers are concerned there will be a big drop-out rate," says Pat Cockett at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Institutions are coy about how badly they have been hit by the training salary, but there are stories of 30 per cent drop-out rates on some BEd courses as students opt to do a conventional degree, plus PGCE. "It's much cheaper for the TTA for everyone to go the PGCE route," says Cockett. "But you would lose a tremendous number of really good teachers."

She is concerned that a variety of routes into the job should remain. "Our partner schools want generalist teachers with a specialism - it's very difficult to do that on PGCE." She also argues that encouraging students to postpone their career decision until their early twenties will have a negative effect on recruitment in the long run. "There are 18-year-olds who know they want to be teachers - if they don't start on the path, we may lose them."

At St Martin's in Lancaster, Tony Ewens argues that students who opt for the degree-plus-PGCE route on financial grounds may be making a mistake. "Three-year QTS is still the most cost-effective way to become a teacher because, in year four, you are earning a saary. It's the course for those who know they want to teach. "A degree-plus-PGCE is a bit much for those people, whereas a four-year QTS is for those who, in effect, are opting for a joint honours degree. And for primary, PGCE is a test of stamina."

Homerton College in Cambridge regularly gets top marks for its BEd courses but, from next year, it will be offering a degree in education studies, which leads on to PGCE. "This was partly initiated by the training salary," admits Nick Tippler at the college. "All our students will take that route next year."

The new course will offer a subject specialism and seven weeks of classroom experience on the degree element of the study. "Institutions will move towards the postgraduate route," predicts Tippler.

And despite what the TTA says about preserving a diversity of options, many ITT providers share Tippler's view that PGCE will become the preferred qualification. "They prefer PGCE because it's cheaper," says one provider. "And it's more flexible - they can make changes to a one-year course far more easily than they can to a three- or four-year course."

The Government can also turn the supply of teachers on and off more easily through PGCE and, while all the publicity is about a shortage of teachers, it's easy to forget that in some areas, notably PE and early years, there is a surplus.

Homerton is not the only college restructuring courses. Bishop Grosseteste, in Lincoln, is also planning for a degree-plus-PGCE course. Principal Eileen Baker says: "We would hope to capture students looking for a longer training experience. The school experience element of the degree would be significant, with some time in schools each year."

But other institutions are backing away from a course they see as a financial disaster. Liverpool shut last June, and Warwick, the fifth biggest university in the country, is having problems recruiting to its PGCE course. Loughborough, world renowned as a PE college, has just decided to close its postgraduate school next year. Some courses will be transferred to a new humanities school, but many of its subsidiary subjects, including design and Spanish, will end.

The problem arises because much of the PGCE takes place in school, and ITT providers are expected to pay schools for the time they give to the students. Yet, at the same time, the institutions have to maintain academic support staff across a range of subjects and often for relatively small numbers of students. "Many institutions have seen PGCE as a loss leader," says Baker. "There have been threats to withdraw in the past."

It may be too soon to gauge the full effect of the training salary. "We were still finding applicants in July who didn't know anything about it," says Kathy Hodgkinson, dean of education at Liverpool Hope. "It came out at a time when they were immersed in their exams."

Yet many still feel it would be a mistake if the typical student teacher of the future qualified via the postgraduate route. Primary heads, in particular, argue that they are looking for generalists to teach across the whole range. "I'd agree with the primary heads," says Anne Williams. "PGCE is excellent for some. But for many young people, the four-year course is more appropriate - it offers a greater breadth and depth of knowledge."

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