Crunch Time for Teacher Training Recruitment: Show me the money!

This is 4th and final part of a little series on recruitment to post-graduate initial teacher training.

  • Part 1: Bear or bull? is a broad view of the implications of this year’s radical changes.
  • Part 2: Small losses, describes a particularly effective selection process used by one SD alliance to ensure a good match between trainee teacher and training school.
  • Part 3: Hedging our bets, is a little idea about how we might heal the fractured teacher training landscape

The DfE have a new TV advert running. If you really want to feed your teacher soul then you need to watch the original Taylor Mali version, but it’s not a bad effort until the final frame, which has caused a touch of controversy. There may or may not be a few hundred London-based classroom teachers making £65K, and it may or may not be disingenuous to suggest you can earn this as a great teacher (you certainly can if you make head teacher). To me, that’s beside the point. It’s another figure in that final frame that really concerns me.

A tax-free, NI-free, pension-contribution-free, bursary of £30K is the equivalent of a teaching salary of about £45K. Never mind £65K, many of my physics trainee teachers are taking home more money than me, their school mentor, and their HoD. At the same time, I have other tutees who get nothing at all, just an extra £9K on their student loan. Neither of these things seem right to me.

I suppose if one takes a free-market perspective to the teacher labour market then the obvious response to not meeting recruitment targets is to ‘pay’ teachers in shortage subjects more. But that’s not really what those bursaries are doing; they’re much more like golden hellos (or perhaps ‘bait’ is a better word for it) because my physicists go on to pretty standard Main Pay Range salaries as NQTs. A big bursary is obviously cheaper in the long run than starting them on higher salaries but I worry that the experience of my trainee teachers is that their very tough PGCE year is followed by an even tougher NQT year accompanied by a massive cut in income. That isn’t a sustainable formula that encourages retention.

The final problem is “bursary tourism”. Not something we are experiencing at Southampton but I’m starting to hear the term from other providers. On the other hand, we do always have a very small number of trainee teachers that do not go into a teaching career after gaining their PGCE, and some who take independent sector teaching jobs. I know a lot of people are concerned about the taxpayer stumping up so much money and then not getting a direct return. It could be argued that this is just an unfortunate side-effect of a relatively cheap and effective way of boosting recruitment but again, my concern is about sustainability. This feels as though new teachers are being treated like a disposable commodity – buy a bunch and just throw away any that don’t work properly.

I’m not suggesting bursaries are useless. I’m certain that there are a few applicants each year for whom the tempting bursary re-awakens a dormant interest in teaching; I think there are probably a few each year that don’t know if they want to teach but are prepared to have a crack given that the money is good, and then love it and stay. There are undoubtedly many science trainee teachers each year who just could not afford to train without a bursary (it’s not as though you can hold down a PT job during a PGCE) but the size of the curent bursaries, and the very specific link with degree classification, just doesn’t feel like a professional, sustainable model to me.

I don’t think that bursaries that have to be re-paid are the solution. I don’t want to be training people who woke up from their post-finals bender, suddenly realised they needed something to do, and thought “hey, teaching is easy and there’s a great bursary”.  But I don’t think anyone really knows whether teaching is for them or not until they actually do it; prior experience of schools helps with this – inspiring for some and horrifying for others – but that’s not the same as actually taking responsibility for a class. If someone gives teaching a genuine chance and finds it’s not for them we shouldn’t be penalising them, but equally we shouldn’t be paying them an assistant head’s salary whilst they are finding out.

Perhaps bursaries could be tweaked in some other way – perhaps tapering them over a longer period to sweeten the first couple of years of MPS; maybe spread them more evenly rather than targeting just the high achieving science, maths, and MFL graduates who are not consistently the best teachers and are most likely to switch careers away from teaching anyway; maybe have additional criteria, like having to have a certain amount of relevant experience working with children, or passing a difficult pedagogical subject-knowledge assessment, to boost applicant quality. Each of these options would feel more like a sustainable investment in the quality of the teaching profession rather than a desperate attempt to get customers through the door. However, for me they still miss the point that a PGCE is genuinely the first year of a proper professional career; I think that all trainee teachers should be paid a proper unqualified teacher rate. This represents a financial contract that reflects the professional contract they take on as a trainee teacher; it is enough money to live on; it gets rid of the massive imbalance between degree classifications and subject specialisms, which can currently see a mediocre trainee teacher rolling in it whilst a brilliant one is left destitute; it means the transition to NQT involves a pay rise and not a pay cut; and it should end any “bursary tourism” that might be starting to rear it’s ugly head.

Of course, whilst for secondary the savings from mathematicians and scientisists will probably balance out the costs from English and humanities etc. the big difference would be at primary, where only a few subject specialists get bursaries at the moment. On the other hand, the cost of telling parents that their children will have to be in a class of 35, or won’t have a qualified teacher for the year, may be greater (at least if you are a politician and value being in power), and presumably more competition for primary PGCE places will filter through to the quality of primary teaching, upon which everything else in education depends.

What will this mean for physics recruitment, though? Well, I think there are better ways to get more good physics teachers into schools.

Firstly the Subject Knowledge Enhancement route has been a major success and there is some good evidence to suggest that it is pedagogical subject knowledge that matters in teaching, and not graduate level personal subject knowledge; we don’t necessarily need lots more physics graduates – you should see the quality of science teaching from psychology graduates we’ve trained recently!

Secondly, repayment of student loans is an obvious financial incentive. My physics trainee teachers often start the PGCE with a loan of at least £36K and finish with £9K more. The taxpayer is going to have to cover a fair bit of this anyway in 30 years so covering the repayments and/or writing down debt for anyone teaching in the maintained sector seems like a good idea and supports not only recruitment but also retention. Perhaps covering all repayments and writing off the first £9K at the end of the NQT year and then continuing pro-rata would be appropriate; it would certainly send a very strong signal about the value of teachers to society. I would like to see this for all teachers but I suppose it could be targeted at shortage subjects if money is tight.

Thirdly, offering small bursaries to undergraduates to spend time in schools (perhaps within University Ambassador Scheme modules, or just as work experience) would expose more people, at the right time, to the joys of working with children. It might make sense to target this on shortage subjects, in which case the IoP etc. would almost certainly be able to handle this effectively.

Finally, as Tom Sherrington has so eloquently described, teaching has not been painted in an overly favourable light in recent years (perhaps that should be ‘decades’). If this can change, nothing else will matter half as much. This, in particular, has been the tremendous success of Teach First – participants not only want to work with children but want to be a part of something that feels good and feels important. I remember the difference it made in the 90’s when teachers’ salaries and school budgets stopped going down in relative terms and started going up but, above a certain threshold, teachers don’t need to be shown the money; they need to know they are making a difference and they need to know that they are valued professionals. The current very high and tightly targeted training bursaries are sending out completely the wrong message.

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