Earlier this week Education Ministers were reminded of one of the basic tenants of free market economics, namely that it is price that usually regulates supply and demand. Ministers, facing under-recruitment against the expected need for Mathematics and Physics teachers in the future, raised the price that they were prepared to pay trainees, and also widened the scope of those that would benefit by adding a class of graduates with a relevant degree and a good ‘A’ level. This re-opened the door to those with 3rd Class degrees in Mathematics to once again train as teachers rather than be hired by academies and free schools without the benefit of any training.
Nobody with an interest in the history of teacher supply should be surprised by this move. After all, Mathematics and Physics were the two subjects exempted from the original requirement for all graduates to be trained that was introduced in the late 1970s. The exemption was for the very same reason as now, a shortage of teachers in the subjects. Indeed, it wasn’t until well into Mrs Thatcher’s economic crisis that the rule was changed to bring these two subjects into the training fold. How bad the under-recruitment was this year will become apparent next month when the ITT census is published.
As there are to be no formal control targets for Mathematics and Physics this year, Ministers and officials clearly hope that the new scholarship and bursary arrangements will attract more applicants than for the training round that started this autumn. If it were to do so then, because many trainees will not be guaranteed a teaching job, candidates will need to assess whether the supply of trainees might exceed the ability of schools to offer them teaching posts in 2015. However, judging by my inbox, schools are already finding it a challenge to recruit teachers in these subjects, as I predicted would be the case in the Report I wrote during the summer of 2012 for the Pearson Think Tank.
Now I am sure that the Treasury, as guardians of public spending, won’t be pleased with the need to increase bursaries, and may wonder why more hasn’t been done to increase supply in other ways? The management of Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses has been poor over the past year, with the National College needing to do more to recognise that this is a potentially important route into teaching for many studying applied degree subjects. Indeed, there is a case for the government to be working with Vice-Chancellors in order to offer a constructive two-year course leading to qualified Teacher Status that would allow undergraduates to switch courses into a teacher preparation course at the end of year two of their degree but still be awarded both a foundation degree and a teacher preparation qualification. However, such a move would need to recognise the role that higher education can play in training teachers: not something Ministers are yet prepared to really accept.
Since it is likely that Ministers don’t know why, during the last recruitment round into training, schools generally had a lower success rate at converting applicants into trainees than higher education this is one area where urgent research is needed lest the outcome in 2014 be worse than this year if more places in some subjects are transferred to schools.
In reorganising the bursaries Ministers might at least have stuck to their own principles. The absence of anything but a national flat rate for bursaries suggests that recruitment into training is a national problem; it almost certainly, isn’t. Again the Treasury may ask, would it not have been cheaper to pay the extra premium just to those training in London and the South East this year, if that is where the largest amount of under-recruitment has occurred? After all, there can be no difference between a subject variation and a geographical variation in the amounts paid.