THE employment prospects of mature, newly-qualified teachers are nothing like as bleak as the media have suggested, a new study has revealed.
There has been a constant stream of press reports claiming that older entrants to the profession cannot find jobs. Some
commentators have blamed ageism while others have pointed out that financial delegation has encouraged schools to recruit younger, cheaper teachers.
A newly-formed pressure group, the Association of Teachers Against Ageism, has consequently been collecting case histories that detail the struggles that older teachers have to find a job.
But now a study by Elizabeth Bird, an academic at the Open University, has found that only a small minority of older PGCE-holders experience considerable difficulty in obtaining posts.
Statistics on the employment of NQTs tend to be not only complex but contradictory because the bodies that publish them - the Department for Education and Employment, the Higher Education Statistics Authority, and the Teacher Training Agency - collect their data in different ways.
But all the official statistics show that a substantial number of NQTs - including many mature students - have not entered teaching nine months after completing their course. DFEE statistics, for example, suggest that only two-thirds of the students who qualify as teachers in July have jobs by the following March.
But having analysed the employment status of students who have completed the OU's 18-month primary PGCE course Elizabeth Bird has concluded that the official figures are unnecessarily gloomy.
She points out that the DFEE figures on NQT recruitment do not include supply teachers. The Teacher Training Agency statistics are also unrealistically low, she says, because they represent a simple percentage of the numbers gaining qualified teacher status. This results in low employment rates for institutions such as the OU where the destinations of large numbers of NQTs were unknown at the time the statistics were compiled.
In building up a fuller picture, Bird and her colleagues contacted 90 per cent of the NQTs who had completed the OU course in July 1998. They found that only 62 per cent of them had obtained a job by October, but 77 per cent had teaching posts by June of this year.
The OU researchers also conducted a telephone survey of 838 former students who had qualified in 1995, 1996 and 1997. "We found that 77 per cent of the respondents were in post as teachers. The percentages are remarkably consistent across the three cohorts," Bird says.
Furthermore, the telephone survey found that only 131 of the 838 PGCE-holders (15.6 per cent) had not taught since completing the course. "Of those who had entered teaching, but were not teaching at the time of the survey, 70 per cent intended to remain within the profession," Bird says.
"This suggests that the percentage of the sample that could be considered to have entered the profession is as high as 82 per cent overall."
Bird also discovered that the younger teachers had found work more quickly but she suggests that this may be largely because they start to make applications sooner. About a third of the students over 30 do not apply for jobs until after they qualify (the average age of the OU's student teachers is 38). "Around 20 per cent of NQTs over the age of 30 entered teaching posts at least a year after completing their course. But more than 10 per cent of the older NQTs did not make their first application until at least six months after qualification."
She points out that many mature NQTs are looking for very specific jobs and are therefore likely to have to wait some time before the right post comes up. This may explain why a number of OU students who claimed to want jobs for September had made no applications by May.
Bird accepts that the over-40s took slightly longer to obtain a post, on average, after they began applying for posts. But she says that only a small percentage of NQTs made more than 10 applications or attended more than three interviews before appointment. One student had had only four unsuccessful interviews despite making 80 applications, but that was an exceptional case.
"There is little evidence to suggest that (OU students) are disadvantaged by their mature status, although older mature entrants may take longer to obtain full-time, permanent positions," Bird concludes. "Researchers have agreed on the high quality offered by mature entrants, and pointed to the wealth of experience they bring with them: they should not be discouraged."
"Age and employment: a study of the career destinations of primary PGCE students", by Elizabeth Bird, School of Education, the Open University e-mail E.BIRD@OPEN.AC.UK