More worrying signs on teacher preparation applications

The already challenging news about applications to train as a teacher in England for the 2017 recruitment round has in no way been offset by the appearance of the data for March 2017 from UCAS. Applications from those with a domicile in England were 2,450 below the same date in 2016. Of more concern is the fact that there are now fewer applicants from all age-groups. This suggests a widespread reluctance to train as a teacher under present circumstances than just amongst new graduates. However, over the past month only 640 applicants under the age of 22 have registered. This has widened the gap to just over 1,200 fewer from this age-group compared with this point last year from the 1,000 missing applicants mark reported last month.

The net effect has been to reduce the overall numbers placed, conditionally placed or holding offers from just over 21,000 to around 18,600. This is a loss of nearly 2,500 trainees offered a place compared with March 2016. The only bright spot is that the number holding an offer is 1,080 this March compared with 910 in March 2016; a gain of 170.

Differences are beginning to be seen across the secondary subjects. It is difficult to see why geography retains its position as a priority subject when business studies doesn’t qualify for such status. This is because geography has the highest level of offer at this point in the cycle for four years and should easily meet its target for the second year. On the other hand, business studies has little chance of meeting its target, at whatever level it has been set. The same failure to meet the target is to be expected of computing/IT and possibly chemistry that looks to be having a relatively bad year so far, although the science total may disguise some chemistry applicants. Although the majority of other subjects may be able to come close to target if the trend of the first part of the recruitment cycle are replicated, the slowdown over the past two months continues to provide worrying signs of what might be to come in some parts of the country unless applications pick up.

Despite the government’s attempts to move teacher preparation into schools, applicants continue to seem attracted more to higher education courses, especially in the secondary sector where there have been more than 20,000 applications to high education courses compared with a similar number of all school-based routes. So far, only 540 offers have been made to the School Direct Salaried route in all secondary subjects.

With almost 11,000 offers, primary courses may well be on their way to meeting the target, if anyone knew what it was. But, with little more than 9,000 offers across all secondary subjects, there must be concerns for meeting some targets as identified above. Fortunately, there are still 9,000 applications (and upwards of 3,000 applicants) with either interview requests or pending provider offers. We will look at this group in more detail next month.

The overall analysis must be that the gains of last year’s recruitment round look unlikely to be substantiated this year and the overall picture may be like that of 2015: a year most did not want to see repeated



Bad news for life-long learning?

As a Liberal Democrat I have always been an advocate of life-long learning. As a result, the data published by UCAS earlier today on applications for higher education undergraduate programmes in 2017 makes disappointing reading. While the percentage of eighteen year olds applying to university for 2017 entry has reached record levels, the trend amongst older applicants is firmly downwards. This is very disappointing.

According to UCAS, in England, the rates in 2017 fell for all age groups aged 20 and older. The magnitude of these decreases in application rates is comparable to the large fall in 2012 for all of these age groups. The largest proportional decrease was for the 30 to 39 age group (-24.6 per cent proportionally), and the smallest decrease in application rates was for 20 year olds, who decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 3.3 per cent (-10.4 per cent proportionally). The one piece of good news is that despite these falls, the application rates in 2017 for these age groups were between 32 and 83 per cent higher than in 2006.

Elsewhere in the UCAS report it appears that applications from pupils living in disadvantaged areas in England continues to increase, especially applications from women. In England, the ratio between application rates from advantaged and disadvantaged areas was 2.3 in 2017, down from 2.4 in 2016 and appreciably smaller than the 3.8 recorded in 2006. Whether a return to selective education would reverse this positive trend is an issue worth debating. It would seem a likely outcome if the staffing of our secondary schools was affected by any reversal of the non-selective secondary school policy.

The other important feature of the UCAS data that is, perhaps, not unexpected relates to applications from EU domiciled applicants, where there was a fall of 3,000 in the total. However, it was still some 2,000 above the number recorded in 2014. Applicants from elsewhere in the world remained steady at around 52,000.

The ending of the bursary system for nursing degrees, originally negotiated by Frank Dobson as Health Secretary,  when Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced tuition fees for the first time has resulted in a drop of about 10,000 in the number of applicants for these degrees to around 33,000. It would have been helpful to know what effect this decline will have had on the ratio of applicants to places. Could it leave places unfilled or was the competition such that most courses will just find themselves with fewer applicants to consider? Much depends upon the quality of the applicants. If the government uses the cash saved from the bursaries to increase the number of training places on offer, as it suggested it might do at one stage, it is possible that fewer applicants could produce more nurses but less choice for providers. At that stage the issue of quality really does matter. We won’t know the final outcome until after ‘clearing’ in the summer when it should become obvious whether all the places available have been filled.

University numbers still increasing

The first look at 2015-16 recruitment to undergraduate higher education courses four weeks after the start of clearing has been published by UCAS. According to the data in the report, acceptances to the 2015-16 entry year at this point are 511,730. Across the UK This is an increase of 12,610 (3 per cent) compared to the 2014-15 entry year (at the equivalent point in the 2014 cycle).  Acceptances to the 2015-16 entry year were 7 per cent more than to 2013-14 and 16 per cent more than to 2012-13. The total increase of 12,610 to the 2015-16 entry year (compared to the 2014-15 entry year) was split between an increase of 10,800 in acceptances to enter HE immediately and an increase of 1,810 in deferred entry (from the previous cycle).

Even more interesting was the breakdown of qualifications of those accepted. For acceptances recorded as holding entry qualifications in the ABB+ set: 90,160 were holding GCE A levels, -150 (no change to the nearest per cent); 46,330 were holding BTECs, +3,430 (+8 per cent);13,960 were holding SQA Highers or Advanced Highers, +270 (+2 per cent) and 3,930 holding an International Baccalaureate, +310 (+8 per cent)

For acceptances not recorded as holding entry qualifications in the ABB+ set: 156,420 were holding GCE A levels, -440 (no change to the nearest per cent; 53,610 were holding BTECs, +1,040 (+2 per cent); 10,580 were holding SQA Highers or Advanced Highers, -200 (-2 per cent) and 1,710 were holding an International Baccalaureate, +60 (+3 per cent).

So, in both the upper and lower qualification band sets ABB+/not ABB+ the number with GCE A levels effectively remained static and the increase in student numbers came from other qualifications including both the BTEC vocational qualification set and the IB. In percentage increase the BTEC set showed the largest percentage increase. This is despite the presumed attractiveness of the growing apprenticeship opportunities for this group.

The growth of 16% between 2012-13 and 2015-16 entry periods, despite the increase in the fees to around £9,000, shows the continued resilience in the attractiveness of a university degree to potential students. Once more detailed tables are published it will be possible to see how the increase has bene distributed across the different universities. Have the Russell Group taken more students overall, leaving other newer universities to fill places with these extra applicants or has the increase been seen across all institutions. It will also be interesting to see how the numbers of students attracted to different subjects has changed over the past few years as acceptances have increased. Presumably, a large percentage of the increase in home student is among those from families with no previous family member having attended a higher education institution. This would mean a continued widening of the social base of those going attending higher education, despite the increase in fees.

What, I wonder would Labour do about the repayments from these and other students paying back fees if they were to offer to re-introduce free university education to all, including the wealthy? After all, a university education is still much cheaper than many sixth form courses in the private sector.

Still looking for teachers

As of Sunday three-quarters of the undergraduate teacher training courses in England were still in ‘clearing’. That was just over 30 courses. What was interesting was the large number of church universities that weren’t in clearing. Indeed, even if you exclude the University of Durham from the list of church universities, despite the historical association between its teacher education college and the Church of England, more than half the list of institutions not in clearing were church universities, with Reading, Leeds and London Metropolitan Universities being the three exceptions.

From a quick look through the clearing courses, secondary design and technology and some of the sports Science courses related to teaching, as well as primary teacher training courses are looking to fill their remaining places. Of course, the clearing lists don’t tell anything about how many places are still available. Is it one at each institution, a tiny percentage of the overall total, or a more substantial number? Perhaps how many courses are still in clearing in a couple of weeks time will provide a better indication of what is happening?

With the skills tests to pass, and most courses starting around the 15th of September, although one or two start at the beginning of the month, there is little time to spare, especially  with the bank holiday to be taken account of as well.

How far the switch of numbers resulting from some providers returning places, and the National College having had to reallocate them in the early summer to different providers, has led to so many institutions offering at least one teacher training place in clearing cannot be ascertain from the raw figures. However, as I have constantly said in the past, we need to ensure the best possible candidates are recruited into teaching.

The DfE is undertaking a study into recruitment and retention, and it might be helpful if they evaluate as a part of that study whether there are differential retention rates from the different types of training. We do need to know the true costs of all training routes if some have a lower retention rate than others.

If we assume a training cost of £10,000 per student per year allowing for expenditure not currently recovered through fees, then a five per cent difference in retention rates might cost several million pounds extra in training. For this reason alone, it is worth monitoring the different routes. However, since one route is never likely to be able to supply all the need for new entrants, it may be necessary to accept some differential wastage rates; but work to reduce them.

Nevertheless, if the main reasons for leaving the profession are retirement and for family reasons, it is worth looking hard at those other cases where some malfunction in the system has caused a person to quit the profession that they trained for. Teachers are a precious resource; we cannot afford to discard them lightly.  

Allocation of a target

Civil servants don’t use words by accident. So, when the recent Statistical Bulletin (DfE, 32/2013) was headed ITT- Allocations, you can be certain that they aren’t ITT targets in the way they used to be. The last ITT census of 2012 foreshadowed the change by containing ‘targets’ for most subjects, but  ‘maximum permitted allocations’ in four subjects – ICT, Design & Technology, Business Studies and Citizenship. This change has now seemingly been adopted for all subjects.

The Statistical Bulletin helpfully defines the allocation of ITT places as setting the limits on training availability to ensure the appropriate supply of newly qualified teachers. The Bulletin’s text continues with the clarification that ‘Sufficient numbers are allocated to ensure enough teachers are trained, but avoiding excessive provision which may lead to employment difficulties and over-burden public finances.’ However, according to the Bulletin these allocations are then set as ‘targets’ by subject – and presumably phase – by the DfE and NCSL, and these targets are then allocated to particular courses and schools after bids and informed by the Teacher Supply Model (TSM) operated by DfE statisticians, and generally not shared outside the Department. The TSM determines the optimum number of ITT places in England in order to match future teacher supply with future teacher demand as closely as possible. The Bulletin notes that whilst allocations are guided by the TSM outputs, they have to address variable recruitment patterns, viable provision issues and regional differences. New policy decision may also lead to new allocations of places.

How often the TSM is run, and what smoothing of output is currently taking place, isn’t generally shared with the wider community. More than twenty years ago I suggested that the TSM be made public in the same manner as the Treasury shared the economic models it used to forecast future trends in various indicators such as inflation and interest rates. Since then much has happened to economic debate, but little has happened with sharing the TSM except for a couple of papers in response to Select Committee Reports. However, before the appearance of the Statistical Bulletin, one might be forgiven for thinking that this really didn’t matter now. After all, the head of the NCSL told the North of England conference in January 2013 that:

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 have asked my officials at the TA to work with schools, academy chains and local authorities to help them to devise their own local teacher supply model. 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.

So either the Statistical Bulletin is correct and the DfE is still setting allocations nationally, if not targets, and Mr Taylor’s approach has been rejected by Ministers or the Bulletin is a last manifestation of a system to be replaced by local decision-making.

The middle way between the two, and the most likely, is that the DfE and the Treasury set the overall national number based upon the TSM output, and how much the Treasury is prepared to allow in student loans and bursaries, and this global total is bid for by schools, with HEIs and others taking up what left after this process has happened. However, this begs a lot of questions, not least what happens to the places schools return during the recruitment rounds, as happened this year. And, who is responsible for managing any overall shortfall in recruitment into training under such a devolved system?

By way of example, take what has happened to global allocations between November 2012 and August 2013, History places have increased from 686 to 811, whereas Computer Science numbers have declined from 853 to 780. Why has it been necessary to smooth the global targets in these subjects; what policy changes have taken place demanding more history teachers but fewer computer science teachers? The rationale for these and other changes in global allocations haven’t been made clear to those I have asked about them. Overall, as the Bulletin observes, 1,199 extra places have been added to the ITT total between November 2012 and August 2013, making a total of 38,902 places plus Teach First, or more than 40,000 overall for 2013-14. That’s probably a record for England alone. Whether all 40,000 trainees will find a teaching post only time will tell. What worries me most is that many who had taken on the burden of an extra £9,000 in tuition fees may be at the back of the queue when jobs are being advertised next spring.