Where have all the flowers gone

Pete Seeger, who died earlier this week, was a constant presence on the record player during my university days in the 1960s. Interestingly, one of the songs he recorded in 1963, ‘Little boxes’, formed the background to a student project undertaken by my first group of trainee teachers at the University of Worcester during the early 1980s. Persuading the external examiner that group work was a good idea, and that the outcome could be a tape-slide presentation, and not just an essay, was an interesting challenge: now it might be impossible.

I was reminded of Pete Seeger’s ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ when I saw the figures produced by UCAS earlier today about applications up to the 20th January this year for the unified teacher training application scheme. Now, it is a new process, and there are still seven months to recruit and still leave time for taking the Skill Tests before courses start, so today’s figures are really only straws in the wind.

However, the headlines show that while younger applicants appear to be applying in good, if not yet sufficient numbers,applications from those between the ages of 25 and 40 seem below the numbers that might be expected, especially since all career changer routes now go through the unified admissions process.

What could be especially worrying is the apparent decline in applications for primary courses.  In January 2011, some 21,300 applicants had applied for primary PGCE courses, and an unknown number had applied for employment-based routes into teaching. Last year, the primary PGCE number was just over 17,000. This year, when applicants can make up to three applications to different courses at this stage of the process it is impossible to know the actual number of applicants from the published figures. However, if applicants made, on average, 2.5 course choices per applicant, the number of applicants would be just less than 15,000 or 6,000 fewer than in 2011 despite the inclusion of the employment-based places. The position for secondary subjects is even more confusing, partly because of the possibility of candidates making applications to different subject areas amongst their three choices. However, Chemistry, languages, music, Religious Education and Physics look to be ones to watch for potential problems; and both art and drama may be less attractive this year than in the past.

Whether Educating Yorkshire, and the TV series about Teach First currently being shown on BBC, are helpful to recruiting probably hasn’t been tested yet. But, unlike the army, teaching currently isn’t running any recruitment adverts on television. This is despite the need for around 40,000 trainees this year, roughly half the size of the British land army after its latest cutbacks. Spending a bit of cash on recruitment advertising might be a wise move for the government because it cannot afford to under-recruit on primary preparation courses given the increase in pupil numbers over the next few years. A more radical move would be to reassess either the bursary levels or the need for trainees to pay fees. After all, the government could either just pay the fees or even say to schools that they should pay to participate in School Direct rather than be paid by the trainees or the government.

The longer the government leaves any reaction to these numbers, the more they risk compounding the shortfall in recruitment they witnessed last year and that won’t play well in the run up to the 2015 general election. The government has the luxury of weekly data, whereas the rest of us will have to wait until the end of February for the next set of figures.  By then, the recruitment round will have reached the half-way point, and in previous years the trends across the whole cycle will be readily apparent: the clock is already ticking.

Work smarter not harder

A big thank you to the Guardian.com that featured my blog post on episode two of the series about Teach First currently being shown on the BBC: It brought in around 1,000 extra views of this blog over four days, and make the target of 10,000 by the end of January into a feasible proposition.

Episode three of the series was aired last Thursday, and I caught up with it on the BBC i-player yesterday. The underlying themes of the episode seem to be the continuing discipline issues encountered by one of the trainees, and the interaction between teachers and pupils as they learnt about both motivation and setting boundaries. In doing so they also learnt about themselves. What was missing, I felt was any analysis of feedback to trainees making satisfactory or better progress. On the other hand, the one teacher causing concern said at one point she as being observed in half her lessons. How any preparation programme can afford such a high level of observation is a matter of no little wonder to me. What we didn’t see was the way the feedback from these observations was translated into action by both the school and the teacher. There was an interesting juxtaposition of one trainee teacher making a class enter the science lab several times because they didn’t do it to her satisfaction the first time and the trainee judged to have problems were there was no sense of what strategy she was using to gain control of the class.

As I expected, Caleb, and his opinions, featured in the episode along with the views of several other pupils, particularly about examinations. Perhaps too much time was spent on the slaughtering of the birds as a bonding exercise, and we didn’t really hear what the teacher though the outcome of that exercise had been after teaching the pupil again for several lessons. Also, did the RE teacher set to find an Arab looking Joseph (non-speaking) by his head of department really call another teacher Sir when he entered his tutor group to speak to a pupil? I will need to go back and re-check.

The new teachers spoke frankly to camera about their experiences, and the first year trainees were compared to a second year Teach First participant that the school wanted to keep even thought she expressed concern that the results for her Year 11 group would show a dip over the previous year: time will tell. One teacher that featured in episode two didn’t seem to appear this time, but there was no explanation as to why he didn’t feature.

The next episode will take the teachers into their second term when my advice to them would have been, work smarter not just harder. It assessment and preparation are taking over your life, look at how you can restore some normality, because it you aren’t teaching a full timetable think what it will be like when you are. So far, apart from assessed lessons, we have seen few interactions between the Teach First teachers and the bulk of the staff at the schools. Do they ever take part in department meetings or socialise outside of their group?

As a series about human interaction, and the feelings of young people, it makes interesting television, but whether I am not sure about what I have learnt about the Teach First method of preparing teaching that is different to other methods once they are in the classroom except that after a whole term of teaching the team are still being supportive of the teacher facing the most challenge. In this episode she received a warning about her progress from a University tutor. Next time, will she sink or swim in the new term?

Happy birthday

The first post on this blog was exactly one year ago today. Since then there have been more than 8,500 views of the 114 posts. Some 86 people have identified themselves as following the blog, and there are a number that repost to their own followers. Interestingly, the last two days have been the best two for views, with more than 650 views on Friday alone, after the link to the blog was posted on a national site.

During the past year, several issues about education in England have become clearer. Schools remain the focus of much of government policy, but how they are managed is still not clear. The differing roles of mutli-academy trusts, academy chains, and School Commissioners, let alone dioceses and local authorities are still to be fully determined, especially in the primary sector.

Schools are expected to play the key role in preparing the next generation of teachers, but whether they do so won’t become clear until this summer. If they fail to recruit enough trainees over the next few months there might be a real crisis in teacher supply by 2015, especially in the subjects that don’t interest the Secretary of State, but may be vital to the economic well-being of the country. Over-allocating training places is fine, but ensuring the required numbers are recruited is even more important.

The good news is that schools are performing better probably than at any stage in the past fifty years, at least for their most able pupils. There is still some way to go in many schools with helping their less able pupils reach their full potential. However, the government, at least at official level, seems to be more willing to consider progress measures rather than a focus on just outcomes. After all, we don’t know how much of the GCSE and A level success is due to schools, and how much to the investment in private tuition many parents are willing to fund.

Despite the rapid strides in new technology that are occurring almost on a daily basis, with open access courses probably being the triumph of 2013, schooling is still a very labour intensive activity. For that reason the morale of the workforce is vital to pupil achievement. The government seems to recognise that in relation to school leaders, but might be more understanding of the support needed for classroom teachers. Educating Yorkshire and the travails of the Teach First trainees have shown TV viewers across the country what working in real school is like on a day to day basis, and made teacher bashing by ministers less believable. Between now and the general election the government has to think about recovering from its short-sighted abolition of the GTCE, the professional body for teachers. Supporting a College of Teachers might be a sensible option.

Looking back across the past year, if this blog has achieved anything other than to allow me the pleasure of writing a weekly column, as I did for the TES for more than a decade, it has been to highlight the issue of teacher supply. There is more discussion, and more data available, than for many years. If that helps prevent a teacher supply crisis in the future then I will be more than content. In the meantime, I will continue to write at roughly weekly intervals with the aim of discussing the numbers around the school system in England. Thank you for reading, and a big thank you to those who have sent me comments during the past year.



More on made not born: how teachers are created

Last night I caught up with the second episode of BBC3’s new series, ‘Tough Young Teachers’ that is all about the progress of a group of Teach First recruits. (Past episodes are available on the BBC i-player). The teachers featured were working in Harefield Academy, Crown Woods School and the Archbishop Lanfranc School. Although Teach First started as a programme for inner city schools, these three schools that are located in Uxbridge, Croydon, and Bexley, might better be characterised as suburban, and not inner city. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenging. Their Free School Meals measure for the Pupil Premium – anytime in the past six years on free school meals – ranges from 29.2% at The Harefield Academy, to 41.7% at Archbishop Lanfranc, and 46.2% at Crown Woods College according to DfE figures; all well above the national average. Both the latter two schools have a significant number of pupils whose native language isn’t English; although as a measure of the need for support it is probably worth re-visiting this indicator to see how it is calibrated. It might be better to classify whether pupils have a level of English that allows them to function effectively in a learning situation rather than know what their native tongue might have been.

All three schools have above average levels of persistent absence, and perform less well with least able pupils than their most able. According to the DfE, Archbishop Lanfranc is an 11-16 school, and the other two have sixth forms. This point worries me, since it is not clear how Teach First ensures any exposure to post-16 teaching for those placed in 11-16 schools? If they want to stay in teaching after two years, this lack of sixth form experience might restrict the range of schools willing to employ them. This is always a risk with a single-training location over courses that allow training in several schools during the programme.

Another risk of such single-school programmes also became apparent in last night’s episode. One of the group was seen facing considerable discipline challenges in their classroom. In a traditional programme of teacher preparation they would receive a second chance to start again in a new school on their next placement. This would allow for a fresh start and see whether they could improve with a new set of pupils. On Teach First, it was suggested last night that the choice is to be battle through or be sacked. In an earlier post last year, I commented how much Teach First appeared to spend on recruitment and selection, so it is worrying that someone can pass through selection, and the six weeks of training, and still face such challenges in a school where many pupils are there because of their sporting achievements: judging by their appearance, and that of the school, they are also generally working in a supportive learning establishment. But, television has to tell as story that entertains, informs and hopefully educates the viewer, so we may not know the real situation. However, that student was filmed sitting down in the classroom too much for my liking, although the arrangement of the furniture probably also didn’t help a new teacher.

For entertainment value, watching endless lessons can become a bit like watching paint dry for the average viewer, and even I looked at my watch a couple of times, so the storyline of the pupil recently returned from a spell in a Pupil Referral Unit offered an interesting counterpoint. Caleb was articulate, truculent, and as viewers know from Educating Yorkshire before Christmas, exactly the sort of pupil to challenge a school, and its experienced teachers, let along one just arrived from six weeks of basic training outside the classroom. No doubt viewers will see more of Caleb in later episodes.

By now the viewer also knows something of the personalities of the new recruits. They also know, if they didn’t already, that teaching is not easy, and there is no such thing as deference to authority in modern society. Respect has to be earned in the classroom as on the beat or by anyone in a position of authority.

As ever, one asks of oneself, how would I have fared?  I don’t know, but if it is any consolation to those training at present, my first year, admittedly with no training, and as a supply teacher in Tottenham, was far worse than some of the scenes from last night’s programme. I will watch future episodes with interest.

Do 40% of teacher quit in their first five years?

When the HMCI makes a statement such as ‘we invest so much in teacher training and yet an estimated 40% of new entrants leave within five years’ it much be taken as being authoritative, and presumably correct. However, it is worth digging a bit more deeply into the data to see what actually happens to new teachers. Fortunately, the DfE published a detailed analysis of a cohort in their review of the first School Work Force Survey of 2010. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182407/DFE-RR151.pdf

According to the DfE’s analysis of 100 entrants to training, 56 would still be teaching in the state-funded sector five years later, and another six would be teaching in the non-maintained sector; others might be teaching abroad or in the further education sector, possibly in a sixth form college. So, the 40% looks like an upper limit on the number leaving post-qualification.

What is more interesting is the loss after actually entering the profession. According to the DfE analysis, only 4 of the 47 postgraduates that found a teaching job left after five years, and the number of undergraduates was actually greater by one at the five year point than the number counted at the first year after training; presumably as late entrants found a teaching job. This analysis, therefore, points to the greatest loss being between training and employment. Indeed, of the 63 postgraduates that completed training only 47 will be teaching in publicly-funded schools a year after training, along with 12 of the 17 undergraduate completers.

So, is this loss of around a quarter immediately after training a matter for concern? Much may depend upon whether during the period of the DfE analysis too many teachers were being trained. Hopefully, some decided after completing the course that teaching wasn’t the career for them. Other students, especially mature students, may be tied to a particular location, and just haven’t seen a job in their subject advertised yet.

Indeed, since HMCI Annual Reports in recent years have said how good new teachers are, it seems a little odd to suggest there might have been a dip in quality recently. HMCI cannot have his cake and eat it. Either he repudiates publicly the work of his predecessors or he explains what evidence he had to use for his speech to the North of England Education Conference.

Personally, in the new world where many schools sail alone, I think it is important to ensure adequate professional development for new teachers. The audit trail will quickly reveal whether it is during training or afterwards that problems arise. What is more important is for the evidence of any systemic weakness during training to be fed back into consideration of how teacher preparation might evolve. For instance, more time in the classroom might not improve classroom management outcomes unless it is associated with the time spent on the theory and techniques of behaviour management, and the part played by good subject knowledge and an understanding of young people. If, as a result, HMCI decides to tell the government that the present one-year course, especially for new primary schools teachers needs a complete overhaul, I would be delighted.

No more free market for teachers

The North of England Education Conference may have diminished in status over the years, but it hasn’t completely lost its role as a major source of policy announcements, especially in relation to teachers and school leaders. This year, both the Chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw, and Minister of State, David Laws, used their speeches to the conference to hammer very hefty nails into the long-held doctrine of the market as the solution to all public sector problems by suggesting that teachers – and heads – should be matched to schools where their services are most needed. This is a radical break from the practice of the last 50 years when schools have become used to advertising vacancies, and teachers have been free to choose which ones to apply for.

HMCI talked of a “national strategy” to ensure we place ‘good teachers in schools that face the greatest challenges’, while the Minister announced a ‘pool of top talent within the profession, a champions league of head teachers, made up of heads and deputy heads, who will stand ready to move to schools in challenging circumstances that need outstanding leaders’.

From the policy of matching initial appointments of trainees to schools for their first appointment it is but a short step to the idea of then moving teachers between schools. To do this most effectively schools need to be grouped geographically in a manner that most academy chains, with the possible exception of Harris and some ARK schools, clearly are not. No doubt this will be a point the new school Commissioners will not be slow in making to their boss as they waste large amounts of time travelling around their bailiwicks.

However, the idea of assigning more senior “champions league” head teachers to schools, and possibly moving them long distances, as might happen under David Laws’ plans for heads to be parachuted into failing schools, must come with  terms and conditions that are attractive enough to encourage staff to sign up to the proposals. As we know, most heads, especially in the primary sector, only apply for posts within their existing travel to work areas: this is hopefully something that has been researched properly before the Minister made his announcement.

Now, I have always thought it daft that the weakest NQTs had to wait to find a teaching job, and in some cases were left without a teaching post for some time so that when they did eventually find a vacancy (after term had started) they were even more in need of further help than if they had been hired at the start of term. Of course, if there are more than enough teachers of good quality to go around that isn’t an issue. However since teacher supply is already under pressure in some subjects, and at risk of becoming even worse in 2014, the debate threatens to become academic as some schools will just need a teacher to fill their vacancy. David Laws has no doubt taken advice about the outcome of Labour’s Fast Track Scheme of the early 2000s before launching another national staffing initiative.

Linking training and employment will also help identify whether I was correct in 2008 in coining the phrase, admittedly about the primary sector, of ‘training in cathedral cities to teach in inner cities’ to characterise those who trained in one sort of environment, but found employment in an entirely different setting. Not everyone agreed with me, and there are those that think you can train anywhere to teach in any school. The new HMI inspection evidence will help clarify the situation.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what Mr. Taylor, has to say on Friday morning at the conference. Last year in Sheffield he proclaimed the end to central planning for teacher supply. However, this year, the message now seems to be that the new NSS (National School Service) will look increasingly like the NHS – and be equally devoid of democratic accountability.

Teacher Supply Model: a technical description

This week the DfE issued its response to the Select Committee request for an explanation of how the Teacher Supply Modelling (TSM) process works. It took the DfE just 20 pages of lightly argued text to explain the principles to those unfamiliar with the process. This is the third such Report in response to Select Committee inquiries into teacher supply over the past 25 years. The first, issued in 1990, and entitled Projecting the Supply and Demand of Teacher – A Technical description, ran to some 78 pages in length. The second, issued in 1998, and entitled Teacher Supply and Demand Modelling – A technical description – was even longer, at 85 pages. Both received Ministerial endorsements. The first was endorsed by The Secretary of State at the time, Kenneth Clarke, and the second by Estelle Morris, the PUS of the day. The new document is seemingly devoid of any ministerial endorsement or support.

What is clear after looking at the three documents is they manner in which the TSM process has been pared down and simplified over the years. The fact that the TSM is now only run for five secondary subjects and primary (page 23) plus a catch-all is used for other secondary subjects where the numbers are then ‘divided between other subjects proportionally according to data from recent years’ must be worthy of debate by the Select Committee. What data sources are used to establish the distribution? Is it the number of teachers in the subjects as measured by the School Workforce Survey or the amount of curriculum time allotted to each subject? The absence any overall modelling for the sciences, and a concentration on just Physics and Chemistry, is also worrying.

However, the most concerning part of the document is the single paragraph on page 20 entitled Ensuring the robustness of the TSM. The paragraph is worth quoting in full.

‘The estimates in the TSM are based closely on data trends from recent years with adjustments made from known policy changes. The robustness of the TSM is assured by sensitivity testing the model against variations in all the assumptions.’

Now the earlier documents did at least identify what some of the assumptions might be. In the new document we are told of completion rates for ITT routes in the past, but not the assumption used for School Direct that has replaced the former employment based routes into teaching. We are also told of pupil growth, and of retirements, and the outcome assumption for wastage rates of teachers leaving the profession, and for those joining both from ITT and from outside the state-funded sector. However, the comments about the success of these teachers in returning as contained in section 2.3 are somewhat opaque to say the least. Here, as elsewhere, worked examples might have added to the understanding of the process.

The modelling of wastage really identifies the whole issue with the methodology: it is essentially backward looking for its inputs. This may not matter when economic and other societal trends are relatively unchanged from year to year but it risks failing to capture major shifts in the labour market until well after they have occurred. This is why the failure to discuss the outcomes of the TSM and a range of options with the wider education community always puts the government at risk of catastrophic failure in teacher supply. The situation hasn’t been helped by the lack of a desire on the part of the wider community to systematically try to replicate the TSM for its own benefits.

The section on page 19 of the new paper dealing with stability in the ITT market and the calculation of the optimum number of ITT places seems at odds with the reality of the 2014 allocation where if Table 5 is correct the estimate of places required was 34,890, but the number allocated was  some 41,000. Now either this means that the government believed that only allocating the estimated number wouldn’t produce enough trainees or it was prepared to put the Treasury in hoc for extra fee for some 6,000 students at £9,000 a throw. What happens between now and August will be of great interest, not least to the 130 history graduates likely to be recruited above estimated need.

Missing from the document are a number of areas of importance: the policy assumptions about school budgets and the effects of the minimum funding guarantee, the  consequences of the Pupil Premium; and the possible new funding formula; the presence of Teach First, and any likely increase in the use of teachers not put through the training process informed by the TSM; the effects of shortfall in recruitment into training from year to year .This last point is covered on page 1, where it is stated, ‘undersupply is double-weighted to reflect that a future shortage of state-funded teachers would be less desirable than a future surplus’: a sensible policy option. However, it is not clear how this works in practice.

Novices to the TSM process may find the document helpful at a basic level, but, by ignoring any debate about how effective the past is as a guide to the future, and also avoiding discussions about whether the TSM is part of the process in defining ITT numbers that Ministers can then change on the advice of others, the document provides little insight to the decisions taken during the past two years about how many teachers to train. Possibly, we will learn more when Mr Taylor speaks at the North of England Education Conference next week, but a lingering doubt must remain that as he said at the same conference last year:

In the future I would like to see local areas deciding on the numbers of teachers they will need each year rather than a fairly arbitrary figure passed down from the Department for Education. … I don’t think Whitehall should be deciding that nationally we need 843 geography teachers, when a more accurate figure can be worked out locally.