This is Part 1 of a little series on recruitment to post-graduate initial teacher training.
The New York stock exchange bell rings each weekday to signal the start of a frenzy of trading. The whole business is dramatic enough to justify the regular appearance of celebrity bell-ringers. In previous years, UCAS applications for Initial Teacher Training have opened without fanfare but I can’t help thinking that this year they should have got a bell and maybe drafted in Amir Khan or Felix Baumgartner to ring it.
Maybe that’s a touch dramatic but with no allocations this year, the popular shares are going to go like hotcakes, although I have no doubt us scientists will, as usual, still be picking up applications in August. I guess there will always be high demand stocks and those that just tick over gently in the unwanted corners of global capitalism but for my colleagues in the popular secondary subjects, and primary, it’s probably all going to be striped jackets and manic yelling for the next few weeks, months, or – in the case of PE – possibly days.
For anyone not familiar with the radical changes to ITT recruitment, the major difference is that in previous years each provider or SD alliance had a specific allocation of places. For example, we might be allocated 10 biology places (with severe penalties for going over this number). This year, there are no allocations for individual providers, just a total for the whole country. When this national target is reached, all providers will be told to stop recruiting. If you want to investigate the subtleties then the NCTL guidance is here.
I can see the argument. One of the problems in the last couple of years has been that SD routes have struggled to fill places whilst HEIs have recruited more successfully but have been held back, in some shortage subjects, by their allocation. Equally, some SD alliances have recruited very strongly and could have taken more trainee teachers but were essentially prevented from doing so by the unfilled allocations of other alliances. Maybe a freer hand for some providers to take on extra places would have helped. Having said that, last year when we reached our allocation for chemistry we just asked the NCTL for some more places, got them, and filled several of these. As long as the NCTL respond immediately to requests for extra places in shortage subjects (which hasn’t always been the case), and increase allocations for successful alliances that want to expand year on year, this seems like a decent solution to the problem of maintaining control over numbers whilst allowing the system to respond quite flexibly.
However, the new system has taken a big step further and gone all out for flexibility – I guess ‘quite flexible’ wasn’t seen as good enough – but I fear at the expense of quality, and possibly control. I’ll try to explain why, taking history as an example. Until this year, my history colleague has always been blessed with a large number of applications and the certainty that these will keep coming. She shortlists the really good ones and interviews in batches of about half-a-dozen, offering places only to those she is certain will go on to be excellent teachers. Somewhere during the Spring term she has usually reached her allocation and closes the course. Sometimes applicants that look good on paper are unconvincing at interview and under the previous system my colleague could confidently reject these knowing that better applicants would come later. Now, bear in mind that all our jobs are dependent on maintaining the number of trainee teachers we recruit; how does that affect her decisions under the new system? What if she is below the normal allocation for history, rejects some unsatisfactory applicants, and then the NCTL close history nationally: well, clearly we’re screwed.
The tragedy of the commons is stamped all over this. If all providers stick to their previous very high standards for history, then they should all be able to recruit the same number of excellent history trainees as before. But as soon as some providers start lowering standards to ensure they hit their recruitment targets, everyone has to either follow suit or be left short when history closes. And, although no provider will (apparently) be allowed to dramatically increase their slice of the pie, if the ones that recruit fastest quite reasonably add on an extra one or two then that compounds the problem. Expect the same thing for English, geography, and primary.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is the further complication that each applicant will have applied to three different providers. So, if my colleague were aiming for, say, ten historians, she needs to make more offers to account for those who will choose other providers. How many more? Who knows? She can look at historical data to try to ascertain the proportion of offers that are accepted but with small numbers there is likely to be more noise than signal. What if she makes twenty offers and they all accept (she runs an excellent course!)? Oops, we’ve just doubled the cohort. Worse, what if other providers make this error? Well, history closes nationally with our course only half full and, again, we’re screwed.
For PE, it’s exactly the same thing, but on speed. Our PE PGCE is normally full by Christmas but they’ll have had over a hundred applications by then. There could easily be enough decent applications submitted in the first week to have one interview round, fill the course, and close next week. Nick Leeson tried to dig himself out of the hole he got Barings Bank into with an ‘all in’ overnight bet on the stability of the Tokyo and Singapore stock exchanges, waking the next morning to the Kobe eathquake, 6500 dead, and total financial ruin. How many providers will line up their interviews, only to wake up on interview day to an email from the NCTL telling them PE is shut? No-one will die; no buildings will be razed; no-one will go to prison; but that could certainly be a career-ending miscalculation.
Now, as my wife frequently points out, I’m an unrepentant pessimist; whenever things change I’m always looking for the potential for this to create a bear market. It is generally the case that the best ITT applicants are committed and organised and therefore apply early. Maybe the pressure to snatch the first good ones and run will work out okay. Maybe providers are wise enough to avoid any kind of race to the bottom, and quality will be maintained. Maybe the extra flexibility will gradually apply market pressure to select the best provision. Maybe the extra flexibility will help to support numbers and ease concerns about recruitment. Maybe there will be no bears: maybe it’s just bull.