The POSTGRADUATE teacher training system has descended into panic over the past three weeks. The reason? A new “free for all” system of allocating trainee places, designed to simplify the process, has had unintended consequences for universities.
Potential trainees have had to be brought in early for interview – some from as far away as Saudi Arabia – as new caps on recruitment for the next academic year were reached with unexpected speed.
Amid this uncertainty, prestigious Oxbridge courses were threatened with closure and fears were raised about the quality of future teachers. Here, we explain what happened and why.
Why have some universities claimed that their postgraduate university teacher training courses have been recently threatened with closure?
It’s the result of a system brought in this year by the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), which removed individual allocations for teacher training places from schools and universities.
Instead, the training providers were told that they could recruit as many trainees as they wanted for September 2016 until a national limit was reached. Separate limits were set for primary and on a subject-by-subject basis for secondary.
But within the overall national limits for trainees, separate caps were placed on the numbers that could come from universities. These gave a guaranteed minimum number of places for school-led courses.
Why the change?
The official reason given at the time was that the change was in response to frustrations voiced by teacher training providers about the complicated allocations system. But Universities UK, the umbrella body for British universities, pointed out at the time that the changes could reduce the viability of higher education courses.
It feared that the change was a way of channelling applications to the School Direct route. In 2014, School Direct filled 57 per cent of its places on its fee-paying courses (which directly compete with universities), whereas teacher training places at universities were 90 per cent filled.
Why would the government want to boost School Direct?
In 2014, Michael Gove, who was education secretary at the time, said that School Direct would enable “our best schools to hand-pick the most exceptional candidates” and force universities to shape their education departments to meet the needs of schools “instead of the whims of ideologues”.
But while the scheme is popular with schools, which requested more than 19,000 places in 2015, it seems less popular with candidates.
Ucas stats from 2014 show that the majority of applications were made to universities (62 per cent) and the offer rate at universities (27 per cent) was higher than for School Direct courses (20 per cent).
How were individual universities supposed to know when to stop recruiting?
NCTL planned to email universities to warn them when the recruitment threshold level reached 50 per cent, 75 per cent, 90 per cent and 95 per cent of final national caps for university courses.
Did this year’s change to the recruitment system work?
No. The first subject to fill up all its university places was PE. The demand for places was so high that NCTL’s plan to send out warning emails failed and the course was suddenly shut. Some candidates who had arrived at universities expecting to be interviewed were sent home without being seen.
Was that the only subject where the system went wrong?
No. A few weeks later, with a similar situation looking likely in history, universities started scrambling for applicants, bringing forward interviews or Skyping people. However, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford refused to do this and so faced the closure of their PGCE history courses.
The government stepped in at the last minute, and allowed Oxford, Cambridge and six other universities to continue to recruit trainee teachers until they had reached 75 per cent of last year’s allocation.
Is there any way that these problems could have been avoided?
Quite possibly. Universities had raised concerns about the manageability of the system earlier in the year.
Are all postgraduate teacher training courses for 2016-17 now full?
No, at the time of writing there were School Direct places for all subjects and in primary. But they were close to the national limit for PE. For university courses, PE is now full and history is full (apart from the extra leeway given to the eight universities). Primary and English courses are filling up quickly, with all universities now restricted to recruiting between 75 and 95 per cent of their allocations last year.
How will this affect the number of people training as teachers next year?
School Direct has historically had a bigger under-recruitment problem than university courses, which Ucas figures suggest are much more popular with applicants. So it is not clear whether changing the system in this way will persuade more people to opt for school-led training.
Will this have any impact on the quality of trainee teachers?
University lobby groups warned NCTL back in June 2015 that using a recruitment cap would encourage some training providers to accept applications quickly, before national limits were reached.
“This will discriminate against later applicants and may lead to high-quality candidates being excluded,” they said. But NCTL argued that there are controls within the system that will stop any reduction in the quality of future teachers.
What will happen next?
Expect to see some changes. The system was brought in for one year and has already been altered after the earlier frantic scenes over PE and history recruitment.
There is now pressure on NCTL to change the recruitment process for 2017.