Labouring under a new challenge

November 14, 1997

The recent report from the House of Commons education and employment select committee recognises that there is a teacher recruitment problem developing that will, if the trend continues, make it increasingly difficult for the education service to meet Labour's challenge of raising standards in schools. Without enough well-qualified teachers we are squandering a vital resource and depriving children of the education they deserve.

The select committee, under Labour MP Margaret Hodge, chose teacher recruitment as the subject of its first report of the new parliament. Much of the report builds upon a wider-ranging one into teacher training published by the previous select committee in the last parliament's dying days.

The committee acknowledged that four-year bachelor of education teacher training courses for would-be primary teachers do not always attract those with even the average number of A-level points required to enter higher education. The committee's solution, to raise entry standards to these courses, ignored another potentially more straightforward option, that of switching more places to the one-year postgraduate teacher training route. With an increasing tendency among students to delay career choice until after the completion of a first degree, able graduates may be being turned away from postgraduate certificate in education primary training courses because there are insufficient places. In the post-Dearing world it is debatable whether the majority of primary school training places should be reserved for those who decide on their career before entering higher education.

The committee also recognised that levels of recruitment into teaching depend upon the interplay of a series of complex factors, including the attitude of society to teachers, the workload and teachers' conditions of work, and the competition for graduates in society.

It is always difficult for a select committee with a majority of government supporters to go against established policy, so perhaps the committee went as far as it dared over the issue of teachers' pay. In recent years it has come to be accepted that the PGCE course is not just another postgraduate course in universities but is the point at which new entrants to teaching join the profession. In this respect they are no different from any other graduate opting to join a company training scheme, except that they are not paid a salary. After much thought the DFEE has agreed that PGCE students do not need to pay fees but they must still support themselves during training.

To turn the PGCE year into a salaried training year located in higher education would cost the Treasury about Pounds 200 million if the salary was about Pounds 10,000 a year. The committee's suggestion that sabbaticals should be introduced for serving teachers would also cost around Pounds 200 million if they received one term off for every seven years of service; an idea proposed by the James committee in the 1970s. Together these two proposals might convince potential recruits that the government is serious about wanting to attract able graduates into teaching. It would show practical support for the TTA's campaign talking up teaching under the slogan "no one forgets a good teacher".

I am sceptical, however, about the committee's idea of fast-track promotion for some entrants to the teaching profession. The present labour market for teachers is completely unmanaged. Every teacher is free to apply for any post that is advertised anywhere in the country. This means that mature graduates seeking posts in a particular location for family reasons must compete with potentially mobile new entrants in their early twenties who may have the bonus of being cheaper. The committee called for the government to "revisit the LMS formula and teachers' pay scales to ensure that mature entrants are not disadvantaged". This solution does not address the question of a free market in teachers' jobs. For a "fast stream'' solution to work someone would have to be able to organise and deliver the promotion opportunities.

Unless the present problems over teacher supply are resolved quickly it is Margaret Hodge's constituents that may suffer the most. Barking, Newham and Tower Hamlets already have more unfilled vacancies for teachers than other part of the country.

I am sure that the prime minister did not mean the slogan education, education, education to apply only to independent schools. Nevertheless, it was the Headmasters' Conference witness who suggested to the committee that salaries in independent schools were about 10 per cent higher than in the state sector, and that working conditions were better as well.

John Howson is a visiting fellow of Oxford Brookes University and former chief professional adviser to the TTA, in which capacity he gave evidence to the select committee. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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