Thursday, 6 August 2015

A teacher recruitment time-bomb?

Just because teacher training applications are down, is there anything to worry about? Yes, lots – but maybe there are positives to be drawn from the situation.

At first glance, the report in the TES last week seems alarming: a 9% drop in applicants to be teachers, at a time when we know that the school population is rising, and is due to hit 8 million by 2023, the highest level since the tail-end of the Baby Boom reached school leaving age in the early 1970s. Who will teach all these children?

Is it actually alarming? It should be emphasised that this is a drop in applicants, not in the number of those accepted for a place – what the story doesn’t say is that there are still three and a half applicants for every place available. Having said that, it is important for training providers to have a choice. Unless the applicants are very committed and confident, or very foolish, they will also have applied for other courses or jobs, meaning that as university results and A-levels appear, many of the 120,000 applicants will drift away. Last year with 10,000 more applicants, only 93% of teacher training places were filled; it was 95% the year before. The really worrying figure is that over the five years to the end of 2014, new entrants to the profession fell by 16% (Daily Telegraph). A downward trend in teachers and an upward trend in children is not great news for the quality of education.

The negative implication of the news story is in fact borne out by a deeper look at the statistics. We do have something to worry about. In 2013 the primary outlook was slightly better than the secondary one (secondaries have shortfalls in practical and scientific subjects) but in 2014 it had declined to the same 93% new entrant level.   

There is not much to cheer us in the situation. The government’s statistical report disingenuously boasts that ‘New entrants to initial teacher training are becoming better qualified’, with 73% of postgraduate trainees holding first class or upper second class degrees. So - there are fewer, but those there are, are better. However, this percentage is not substantially different from the national picture (71% of all students achieve these grades, which are on the up) and let’s not forget that those with less than a lower second are barred from teacher training anyway, so with only three degree classes to choose from, that 73% figure is not particularly magnificent.

The truly alarming thing is that of those who do complete their training courses, a high number (it could be 40%) will start as a teacher and then leave within a year – the quit rate after graduation doubled between 2005 and 2011 (Guardian). It might be that the government’s recruitment targets allow for this sad haemorrhaging of potential talent – but it is the same impetuses behind both these stories - depression of recruitment and discouragement of retention. Repeatedly we hear and read of teachers’ disenchantment with the consequences of the changing systems over the last decade – incessant governmental fiddling, increased workload and the unrealistic expectations of inspectors and managers.

It is indeed a time-bomb, but maybe there will be some good to come out of this situation. Teachers’ conditions are going to have to improve if schools are to retain and recruit. Maybe this will involve a serious look at the professional and personal consequences of the target-driven system. 


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