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Why isn't the Government’s School Direct scheme attracting enough schools?

In principle, it's a good idea, but the Government’s School Direct scheme isn’t attracting enough schools. Are we heading for a shortage of teachers?

A maths teacher writes on a whiteboard
Why isn't the government's idea of training teachers in schools more popular? Photo: Getty

It’s a good idea in theory: give schools more of a role in teacher training and you’ll get teachers who are school-ready from the first day. But the Government’s School Direct scheme isn’t attracting enough schools.

A report this week by school thinktank Million+ says there could be a shortfall of 3,000 teachers this year and warned that "higher education providers will pull the plug on teacher training altogether." Those fears seem to be backed up by a letter sent out this week from the University of Bath to partner schools, proposing to end its PGCE programme in 2014.

Until now, teachers had two main routes into the profession: through university or through a Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP). The latter has been scrapped in favour of School Direct, which aims to expand the school-based training for those wanting to work at local authority funded schools in England (for academies, independent schools and free schools no teaching qualification is required.)

I should declare an interest at this point and explain that I have recently been squeezed out of the PGCE sausage factory and find myself tumbling towards September with no job but plenty of enthusiasm. What I can say from my experience is that a PGCE gives you a broad set of skills, but each individual school has very narrow demands on what it wants.

It’s understandable that some schools might want candidates more tailored to their needs. Each school is so different in curriculum, approach and ethos – even those who resist academisation, and remain under local authority control – that it’s virtually impossible to find a one-size-fits-all training programme. If you have a PGCE, you have a rough idea how to teach across a range of schools and in a range of styles – but schools have precise needs. So if there are obvious advantages to training teachers in schools, why isn’t it proving more popular?

The DfE’s website flags up School Direct as a path into teaching for "top graduates". You might ask: a "top" graduate in what sense? A graduate from a "top" university? Someone with a first from any university? A graduate in an education-related subject? It isn’t clear, although the aspiration is.

The DfE says “it is right that head teachers are selective and choose only the brightest graduates best suited to their schools,” adding that teaching vacancies are at a low. The question is what happens if those vacancy rates do not remain low.

Some schools have taken it to mean a licence to pluck only the most promising candidates – so much for differentiation, you might think. But you can’t blame schools: why should they pick anyone else? There’s no room for dead weight at institutions that dread the arrival of Ofsted and want teachers producing gold-standard observation-ready outstanding quality lessons from Day One. Why waste time bringing a candidate with potential up to the level of what someone else can achieve straight off the bat?

There’s no reason for that to change, either, as long as the conveyor belt keeps producing an abundance of candidates who are up to the mark. Nice schools in leafy suburbs can cheerfully cherrypick their way through a guaranteed deluge of applications for every job. More challenging urban schools or rural schools find it tougher; look at somewhere like Aberdeenshire and it becomes even more extreme, with the council looking to Ireland and Canada for recruits. So the schools who might benefit most from  School Direct are often those least able to have the infrastructure, time or human resources to make it happen.

But here’s where the system could be trouble. If more universities consider pulling out of offering PGCEs, and there isn’t enough takeup for School Direct, where will the next generation of teachers come from? Who is going to bridge the gap – especially when school places are increasing all the time? Perhaps David Cameron’s beloved ‘nudge theory’ will come into play; perhaps not.

At the heart of the policy is a sensible principle. But a sensible principle doesn’t translate into anything actually happening. If there is to be a shortage of teachers in a year’s time, where will we find them from?