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Education: Is a teacher shortage looming?

20 September 2013

Changes in teacher training are having a number of unforeseen effects, says John Howson


Soon to be in short supply? Teaching at a primary school

Soon to be in short supply? Teaching at a primary school

THERE is a revolution under way in the training of teachers. It was not entirely unexpected, as it was foreshadowed in the Government's 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching. Like other Gove initiatives, however, it is having unforeseen consequences.

Many schools, including church secondary schools and a handful of primaries, enthusiastically embraced the Government's attempt last autumn to move a significant segment of teacher training into schools and away from the higher-education sector through the new School Direct programme. That includes the Cathedrals Group of church universities - traditionally an important provider of teacher education for more than a century, since their foundation as training colleges.

The schools may have either thought that School Direct was a better way to recruit new teachers, or believed that government policy was pushing them in that direction. Some may have been dissatisfied with existing training arrangements. But many allocated places were still left unfilled by late August, especially in the vital subjects of science, technology, and mathematics.

Officials created a complicated system based on places negotiated by brokers - some of whom were the universities themselves - and schools. At a guess, some schools bit off more than they could chew, judging by the fact that some have returned a portion of the places originally allocated to them. It also seems likely that the Government accepted bids without evidence that the schools had the capacity to cope with the numbers.

The Government has also moved from the previous model, which was focused on targets, to a looser one, based on allocations that effectively reduce the close relationship be- tween training places and potential jobs. The exception to this is the School Direct salaried route, where schools are supposed to offer em- ployment at the end of training. By adding the School Direct route to the mix of training opportunities, the Government has endangered existing provision in some subjects in the universities, including the church universities.

While providing most initial teacher training, the university sector has, traditionally, also underpinned professional development through taught higher-degree courses, and the research that is so important for creating successful schools.

This area of their work has also been weakened. Already, this summer, the University of Bath has signalled its intention to end its involvement in teacher education, and the University of Cumbria has made education staff redundant.

Along with their competitors, the Cathedrals Group will be carefully watching the new OFSTED framework for the inspection of teacher education that came into force a year ago.

Although most courses so far in- spected under the new arrangements have emerged with a "good" grade, Liverpool Hope's primary course was judged to be in need of improvement. But those church universities that received the top grading from OFSTED under the former inspection framework will be concerned to retain that status when the next inspection takes place.

This is especially the case for those - Chester, Cumbria, Chichester, and Canterbury Christ Church among them - that have shown considerable foresight by supporting Schools Direct, since any downgrading might pose a threat to the allocation of future places.

The advent of a new unified admissions procedure for 2014 entry to postgraduate teacher-training should make it easier for those responsible for teacher supply to track the level of interest in teaching among graduates - and, it is hoped, to take early action on any shortfalls in recruitment.

This is important because the sharp rise in the birth-rate during the past decade shows little sign of slowing down, and is putting pressure on school places, especially in London, but also in other highly populated areas of the country.

So, the demand for primary teachers will increase for much of the next decade. Because so many primary schools are church schools, there are important consequences for teacher-training numbers in church universities.

Moreover, beyond 2015 the bulge will move into secondary schools, with the consequent demand for more secondary-school teachers. In the short term, the raising of the leaving age to 17 this September, and to 18 for those entering the sixth form in 2014 also ups the demand for teachers.

As yet there are no signs of a return to the teacher-supply crisis which faced schools a decade ago. Current allocations probably exceed the likely demand for secondary teachers in 2014, but careful monitoring of the situation is essential if shortages are to be averted, especially in London and the south east where the range of alternative opportunities for graduates is at its greatest.

As the undergraduate teacher-training programmes decline, attracting candidates for post-graduate courses becomes more important.

There are now virtually no secondary subjects offered at under- graduate level, and the number of primary places has dropped to about 6000. Fewer than a third of primary teachers are now being trained through this route.

Despite this reduction, the first day of Clearing showed a significant number of primary-teacher training courses with unfilled places. It will be a challenge for anyone entering through Clearing to complete the Skills Test required before they start their course.

The past year has been a challenging one for those involved in teacher training. They have had to deal with the consequences of the move to a more school-directed form of teacher education at the same time as witnessing the first signs of a slowdown in recruitment in the key science and technology areas. The next six months will be vital in establishing whether, after several years of plenty, schools may be moving towards a period of teacher scarcity.

If shortages do emerge, it is to be hoped that action is taken faster than the last time a teacher-supply crisis was allowed to develop, a decade ago.


Professor John Howson is managing director of DataforEducation.info, and Senior Research Fellow in the Department for Education at the University of Oxford.

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