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Why must the BEd trainees do it for free?

Salaries for PGCE students will encourage specialist teachers into primary schools - where they aren't wanted, says Colin Richards

THE Government claims that fairness is a major principle underpinning its policies. It is fair that trainee teachers should receive a salary as do trainee doctors, policemen, lawyers, nurses and others (TES, March 31). It is fair that it applies to both primary and secondary trainees on postgraduate certificate in education courses. But it is unfair that such salaries should be paid only to PGCE trainees and not to students on the fourth year of BEd or BA (Qualified Teacher Status) courses. It is doubly inequitable since these students already have to pay tuition fees waived for their PGCE peers.

Why this inequity? It cannot be because of the differential quality of the two main routes into primary teaching. There is no valid inspection evidence to support a preference for the PGCE route; in fact those higher education institutions concentrating (though not exclusively) on undergraduate courses tend to have better overall quality gradings than those specialising in the PGCE. It cannot be because of retention rates. According to official data graduates from four-year undergraduate courses show higher retention rates in teaching than do former PGCE students. It cannot be for financial reasons since the BEd route is no cheaper or dearer than a first degree followed by a PGCE.

A major reason for official discrimination in favour of the PGCE relates to the "new-model" primary teacher the Government, its inspectors and the Teacher Training Agency appear to have in mind. This teacher is well-qualified academically through a specialist, preferably single-subject first-degree, is very competent at delivering the ITEMS curriculum (IT, English, maths and science) and can usually offer one other subject (related to that first degree) as a semi-specialism.

It matters little that primary heads do not want such semi-specialists to replace generalists. It matters little that most primary schools do not deploy most of their staff as semi-specialists. This new-model teacher is an unacknowledged part of the Government's modernisation project.

What then are the likely consequences of the training salaries policy? The clearest result will be the rapid disappearance of four-year courses, accelerating a trend already in place due to the issue of tuition fees. Numbers applying for PGCE courses will increase, at least for a time. The officially sponsord but far from healthy school-centred training sector will get a much needed fillip.

However, unless further discriminated against, the undergraduate route is likely to survive as a three-year professional degree course for a minority of students. The Government will in fact need it, at least in the short-term, if a recruitment shortage is to be avoided.

There will still be a considerable number of students - not just 18-year-olds but also more mature people- who are convinced they want to teach, who want a degree course focused on professional preparation in depth rather than a short PGCE course and who want to enter teaching after three years rather than four years of training. Many percipient applicants will also calculate that financially they will be better off over a four-year period by taking a three-year degree followed by a full year's salary as a newly-qualified teacher. In such cases financial prudence may well be allied to professional commitment.

It is likely that the three-year undergraduate course will become the preserve of those wishing to become generalist teachers rather than semi-specialists and that a large majority will take early-years specialist courses. It will not be good for the primary teaching profession when "modernised" if many early-years teachers are stigmatised for having had "only" a three-year course of training.

In the short-term the Government will see benefits from its training salaries policy. Through intensive PGCE courses its primary trainees will be able to deliver its ITEMS-based priorities. Recruitment will rise, temporarily, though the fate of past golden hellos does not bode well.

But at what cost? Some HE institutions, particularly in the voluntary sector, will be deeply damaged by the loss of four-year courses. The opportunity to take sustained in-depth courses preparing them to teach across the primary curriculum will be lost.

Many would-be teachers will be forced to apply for courses they would otherwise not wish to take and some at least will be lost to teaching at the end of their first degree course. But there is also the ethical and financial cost borne by those students already on four-year courses. The Government needs to be reminded of the three Es - not just "education, education and education", but equity, equity and equity.

Colin Richards is professor of education at St Martin's College Lancaster and chair of the National Primary Teacher Education Conference

Letters, 23

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