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.

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