Apart from the odd surge in applications after the introduction of bursary schemes and the like, the general trend is for recruitment to teaching to mirror unemployment among graduates: when the economy picks up, as it has recently, applications fall, and poor-quality candidates have a better chance of getting accepted for training.
Between 1983 and 1996, targets for recruitment to secondary training has been met in only three years - 1983, 1991 and 1992 - all years of economic recession and high graduate unemployment. Recruitment to primary courses, however, has tended to exceed targets.
When the Brunel University snapshot was taken in July (week 39), applications for all the shortage subjects - maths, science, technology and modern languages - were down. For maths PGCE, applications were down by 18.8 per cent compared with 1996, and 39.8 per cent lower than in 1994; for technology, the figures were 28.2 per cent and 56.9 per cent respectively.
Disturbingly, applications for subjects that have not previously had any trouble attracting applicants, such as English, were also down by week 39, with geography the most affected. Only PE was expected to recruit to target.
By August 16, the most recent date for which figures are available, this pattern appeared to be hardening (see last week's TES, page 3).
Since the end of the recession in 1993, intakes as a percentage of Government recruitment targets have fallen away year by year. In English, for instance, applications have fallen from 108 per cent of the target in 1993 to 98 per cent last year and 77 per cent this year. This is thought to be a result of the rapid growth of the mass media industry.
Headteachers' comments in the survey show that they are worried by the idea that training institutions are being forced to compromise on the quality of recruits in order to keep their numbers up and their financial viability intact. "The general quality of application forms in terms of presentation and content is poor ... I am sure that the target numbers in teacher training establishments for recruitment has had a disastrous effect on the quality of newly qualified teachers," said one Liverpool head.
Others commented on how the battered and unfashionable image of the profession was putting young people off: "The profession generally is demoralised and feels totally undervalued. Sixth-formers are adamant they will not enter teaching. Trainee teachers are telling us they are looking for jobs in the independent sector only - 'it's less stress and better funded'," said the head of a comprehensive in Gwynedd. Another comprehensive head in Sandwell echoed this: "There are definite signals of fewer post-16 students going into teaching, for reasons they see as far too much pressure, paperwork and demands. Current teachers are persuading students not to go into teaching."
Another head in Lancashire commented on the discouraging effect of teachers over 50 who are "burnt- out and disillusioned".
The recruitment figures for 1997, though not yet complete, suggest that the situation is going to be worse than ever (see table below). The intake as a percentage of the target for 1997 is actually worse than it looks, because last December the Government dramatically slashed the targets (by 28 per cent for maths and 21 per cent for sciences).
The rationale for this was that the (bitterly resented) restrictions on early retirements would mean that fewer teachers would leave the profession, so fewer NQTs would be needed. But many were surprised by the savagery of the cuts.
Another continuing trend is for aspiring teachers to opt for the one-year, post-graduate course rather than the four-year BEd. In 1996-97, 85 per cent of secondary trainees were doing the PGCE; primary trainees are also increasingly choosing the postgraduate route.
The recruitment of teachers should be closely tied to demographic predictions about pupil numbers, which can be forecast with some accuracy for about four years ahead. In secondary schools, numbers are set to rise by 11 per cent by 2004, providing another migraine for recruitment planners. In primary schools, where there is less of a recruitment problem, pupil numbers are set to stabilise at around 4.5 million until 2002, after which they will decline.
Meanwhile, staff have been leaking out of the teaching force through illness, early retirement and the enforced redundancy of senior teachers who have become too expensive. Redundancies have more than doubled since 1989, and retirements due to illness have increased by a massive 45 per cent over the same period. This year, retirements are predicted to jump again, placing yet more strain on the creaking supply system.