New measures merely sticking plaster

Over the weekend the Secretary of State announced new measures to deal with the growing unease about the costs of higher education. She capped fees; adjusted the level at which repayments commence and made some technical changes to support for trainee teachers as well as espousing the apprenticeship route to trained employment and the development of skills. However, she didn’t do anything about the 3.1% management free on the tuition debt charged to students and displayed a somewhat limited knowledge of economics by trying to blame universities for not introducing lower cost courses for some degrees. As this blog has pointed out in the past, why would any provider cuts income when supply exceeded demand? With the number of eighteen year olds falling over the next few years, universities might well offer lower priced degree courses, but will they be shunned as possibly of a lower quality by potential students: we shall see.

The announcements about help for schools, some teachers and trainee teachers seems to be just tinkering at the edges of the recruitment crisis and based on some dubious assumptions in areas where the DfE lacks credible up to date data, as the NAO recently pointed out in their Report on teacher supply issues.

The series of measures announced by the Secretary of State, include:

  • Piloting a new student loan reimbursement programme for science and Modern Foreign Language (MFL) teachers in the early years of their career, targeted in the areas of the country that need them most. The pilot scheme will benefit around 800 MFL and 1,700 science teachers a year. A typical teacher in their fifth year of work would benefit by around £540 through reimbursement, and this would be more for teachers with additional responsibilities. This is in addition to the benefit that teachers will get from the newly-announced student loan repayment threshold rise.
  • New style bursaries in maths will also be piloted, with generous upfront payments of £20,000 and early retention payments of £5,000 in the third and fifth year of a teacher’s career. Increased amounts of £7,500 will also be available to encourage the best maths teachers to teach in more challenging schools.
  • £30 million investment in tailored support for schools that struggle the most with recruitment and retention, including investment in professional development training so that these schools can benefit from great teaching.
  • Supporting our best teacher trainer providers, including top Multi Academy Trusts, with Northern Powerhouse funding to expand their reach in to challenging areas in the north that do not currently have enough provision so more areas benefit from excellent teacher training, and help increase the supply of great teachers to the schools that need them the most.

Leaving aside the fact that there are far greater shortages in some other subjects than MFL and the sciences, such as design and technology and ICT, and in places even English, there is no obvious shortage of biology teachers and the government has little or no idea of whether suspected shortage of languages teachers is in certain languages or across the board?

The new arrangement for maths teachers looks like a return to golden handcuffs, tried before and abandoned. I assume the £7,500 payments will be in the form of payments to certain schools to pay recruitment and retention allowances of perhaps £2,500 per year for a three year period?

The £30 in tailored support might mean a return of recruitment staff, although they are best employed at a local authority level. Providing extra funding for CPD won’t go very far and it isn’t clear whether this is a single payment or designed to be continued for several years.

In a DfE strapped for cash, changes were never going to be very generous. However, these look poorly thought out and are likely to make little difference to the teacher supply crisis in the subjects they target and none in the other subjects where schools are struggling to recruit teachers.

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Shifting sands

The news that the public sector pay cap is effectively dead in the water should come as helpful news for schools facing recruitment issues. I have already suggested that the use of recruitment and retention allowances could be a way around the present pay cap as it was in previous times of recruitment difficulty. Such measures are often unfair on teachers already at the school, but they also recognise the additional costs of taking up a first job or a new position in a different area.

Of course, the cost of these measures, as I suspect with the relaxing of the pay cap, will no doubt have to come from existing school budgets. I don’t see the government offering large amounts of additional funds to schools when the pupil population is on the rise and that increase has to be paid for regardless of whatever else happens. This may mean larger classes; fewer small optional subjects and the continued encouragement of older and more expensive teachers to consider early retirement so that they can be replaced by younger cheaper teachers that no longer need a guaranteed annual salary increase.  I don’t think the Teacher Supply modelling process has taken this last factor into account and it may be partly why demand has outstripped supply in some subjects.

This blog was one of the first to catch on to the penal management fee the government has inflicted on those with student loans from this month. So, it is also good news that over the weekend there has been suggestions that the government will look again at the 3.1% rate. I hope that they will bring it into line with management fees on other financial products. Even so, many families might still find extending the mortgage on the family home a cheaper option that taking out a student loan.

Reintroducing maintenance grants for those from low income families attending university is also a sensible suggestion. Far more sensible that Labour’s idea of abolishing fees and paying for the university education of those young people whose families have been happy to pay for their education up to that point in time. I know the issue that post eighteen they are adults, but as the recent NUS Report on FE launched by Vince Cable showed, there are more deserving areas of limited government funding than paying for those that have not needed or wanted to use the State for education up to the point of entry into higher education.

The other area the government needs to reconsider is the funding of trainee teachers. The lack of any coherent policy between Teach First, School Direct and SCITTs and university courses is damaging to recruitment. A common policy of fees paid by the government and a training bursary for all graduates is both clear and coherent and worked well after 2002 when it became government policy. It has no more deadweight funding attached to it than any other government employment area where new entrants are paid a proper salary during their training period. The Treasury should be reminded of that fact. It is just that the numbers are so large.  However, cutting wastage through better retention of new teachers means that the scheme could even be self-financing if trainee numbers could be significantly reduced over time.

Debt hike for teachers

PGCE students to pay 6.1% interest on loans from the day that their courses starts. That’s not what you want to hear, but what the government has announced as likely from September if there isn’t a loud and sustained public outcry starting at the teacher association conferences this Easter. If the same rate of interest also applies to those on the school-based fee routes as well as undergraduates training to be a teacher then BREXIT is seriously bad news for trainee teachers. The reason is the hike in inflation to 3.1% last month, an increase partly fuelled by the post referendum slump in Sterling as a currency. Add to the inflation increase the 3% fee on top that the government charges plus the fact that interest starts accumulating as soon as the loan is taken out and we are talking serious money and an annual rate of 6.1%.

Career changers would almost certainlybe better off raising an extra mortgage on their house than paying these rates and younger intending teachers not eligible for bursaries should probably consult their parents to see whether they will do the same. Those starting work as teachers in September may find that their take home pay is below what it would have been in earlier years due to the rise in interest rates.

Whether intending teachers wanting to work in state funded schools should be expected to pay for their training is a moot point. Readers of this blog will know I don’t believe any trainee teachers should pay for the privilege of training to be a teacher. Few others, except would-be journalists and possibly fashion models pay for their training; until recently nurses also benefited from a scheme created by Frank Dobson when Blair’s Labour government first introduced tuition fees. The scheme for graduate trainee teachers, introduced in the early 2000s, was expensive, but fair to all trainees. The present situation is confusing, and at these rates of interest and a public sector annual pay rise of probably just one per cent, potentially off-putting to trainees in many subjects. Whether it deters the best or just those most likely to find other work, I leave others to judge.

One solution would be to employ all graduate trainees as part of a national trainee pool that also provided for their pension contributions and with an agreement to pay-off their undergraduate students loans at the rate of 25% of the outstanding interest and principle from the end of year two of teaching. They would be employed form the central pool by schools, so that the schools didn’t have the extra cost of writing off the loans for new teachers. This should be a central cost if loans are to continue. By involving the State directly in the employment of teachers it would allow the DfE to understand directly what was happening with both recruitment and retention. It would also make the DfE responsible for the consequences of mistakes with the Teacher Supply Model. Some PE and maths trainees won’t find jobs in teaching this year, but will still be faced by the increase in interest rates on their loans.

For maths trainees, with bursaries, the pain will be slight: for PE teachers this is punishment for choosing the wrong subject to train in as a teacher.