Computers as teachers would ease shortage

March 27, 1998

John Howson has some radical solutions for the decline in applications to teacher training

TEACHER training faces a crisis. Applications for most courses are still below the levels of this time last year and well below the record numbers recruited four years ago.

By the start of March there had been only 500 applications for postgraduate certificate of education maths courses, compared with more than 1,400 at the same time in 1994. While some large universities with sizeable undergraduate populations to draw from are recruiting, the smaller colleges and the school-based courses are suffering particularly badly. Almost all subject areas are affected except physical education. Primary undergraduate course applications have declined in two years from more than 90,000 to fewer than 70,000.

The Teacher Training Agency is working as hard as it can to make potential teachers aware of the attractions of the profession. It has a website, an award-winning exhibition stand, a telephone information line, the usual brochures and adverts in the recruitment literature and a cinema advertising campaign that will soon join the army campaign on the small screen. However, with a requirement of about 30,000 new entrants each year in England alone, the TTA has a mountain to climb. Teaching still recruits more new graduates each year than all the members of the Association of Graduate Recruiters put together.

Even if class sizes were not to improve, and this government is aiming to improve them at least at the lower end of primary school, teaching would still need roughly the same number of new recruits each year. This is to cope with rising school rolls and a teaching force that is skewed towards the older age groups. Retirements and job changes may take more than 150,000 teachers out of the workforce over the next ten years. The number of pupils per qualified maths teacher in secondary schools has already worsened by about 30 per cent between 1988 and 1996.

The government has not always helped. In a buoyant labour market for graduates, paying teachers at the bottom of the rate for graduate salaries is not likely to encourage recruitment. Neither is phasing the pay rise, nor asking would-be teachers to support themselves during training. As well as being unfair to poorer students, it is unlikely to help attract graduates with rising levels of student debt. Although PGCE students will have their tuition fees paid by the government, those on undergraduate courses will not. Some mature students on degree courses will pay fees while those sitting alongside them on PGCE courses will not.

The lack of a guarantee of a post at the end of the training course may also be a disincentive, particularly to mature would-be teachers who read horror stories about new teachers being unable to secure a job for a year after qualifying. This is particularly important if the interest rate on loans is set at a market rate. It would be unthinkable if a newly qualified teacher's salary was not enough to pay the interest on the debt and the teacher ended up further in debt to the government at the end of the first year in teaching than at the start.

Faced with these problems, has the time come for the TTA to tell ministers that working harder at recruitment is no longer the whole solution? To borrow a phrase from the business world, is now the time to work smarter?

Take maths as an example: teaching might need so many maths graduates that there would not be enough left for other employers. One solution is to train more maths graduates. This is up to higher education and the schools. Making maths more attractive may increase the numbers studying it and hence increase the potential supply of new teachers. But it will probably not be enough by itself.

Assuming that increasing the supply of teachers by the traditional routes is unlikely to satisfy the demand for new maths teachers, at least until the next recession, how else can we work smarter?

In Texas about half of new teachers now train via an alternative certification route that is similar to the new employment-based route developed by the TTA. This route offers a salary and pension contribution from day one. It is no longer an inferior route or soft option since the training plans have to conform to the requirements of Circular 10/97 and these teachers under instruction must adhere to the requirements of the national curriculum for initial teacher training. Initial teacher training providers can be involved and many earn more money supporting these trainees than they do under traditional arrangements. Also it is the schools who are paying higher education and not the other way round as in normal partnership schemes.

The employment-based programmes would be even better if there was a four-week introduction course during July and August. This would allow 100 hours of tuition in pedagogy before the trainees entered their first classroom. This could provide a route for those who are put off by the thought of another year as a student or cannot face the loss of a year's income. It will not work unless heads are prepared to back the scheme and a way of bringing together potential trainees and jobs is created.

Even this approach might not be enough to solve the teacher supply crisis. As computers become ever cheaper the attractions of substituting scarce labour with capital in the form of computer technology becomes worth considering. Individual learning plans that are computer based might help children in those schools faced with a procession of supply teachers, none of whom stays long enough to understand the children's needs.

Using the scarce specialists to intervene at certain key stages, backed up by others with key pedagogic skills but not the full subject knowledge, working with computer-assisted integrated learning systems might just prevent these children from falling further behind their more fortunate friends.

The lack of sufficient teachers means that unless radical solutions are tested some form of rationing of qualified teachers will emerge. With advanced skills teachers and education action zones the government has signalled that it will be those with the money who will win. Other schools should offer to take trainee teachers for nothing; it might be their chance of recruiting new staff in the years to come.

John Howson is a former teacher trainer working with Education Data Surveys.

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