Orders of the Day — Science and Mathematics Teachers

– in the House of Commons at 1:06 am on 11th July 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. [Mr. Lightbown.]

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North

I am grateful for the opportunity to have an Adjournment debate on the current shortage of physics and mathematics teachers in schools. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science for attending at this late hour to reply. The shortage has serious implications for the education of our children and also for Britain's industrial, commercial and technological prospects in the future.

The shortage of physics and mathematics teachers has been a matter of concern for some time and the recent publication of a disturbing report commissioned by the Engineering Council, the Headmasters Conference and the Secondary Heads Association is relevant. Over the years, the Engineering Council has been considering ways in which to increase the number of engineering places in higher education, and that matter was raised during a recent debate on engineering in the House.

The council found that not enough young people were coming forward from the schools and inevitably it began to consider the quality and quantity of mathematics and physics teachers. There is no doubt about the potential and ability of our young people, because just over a week ago Britain won the gold medal in the international school physics olympiad held in Bad Ischl in Austria. The talent is present and our young people have the ability to do well in the subjects.

The report was prepared by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr. Pamela Robinson of Manchester university and it serves to heighten concern about the matter. Obviously it is essential to prevent the problem from growing worse.

The origins of our present difficulties can be traced back, in part at least, to the changes in the education system since the 1960s. The disappearance of grammar and technical schools and their replacement with comprehensive schools, many now without sixth forms, reduced the availability of some of the more challenging and rewarding teaching posts in both subjects. The recent downgrading of the requirements at A-level and GCSE makes school a less satisfactory preparation for advanced university physics and mathematics.

A significant proportion of those teaching mathematics and physics at secondary level lack adequate qualifications to do so. Therefore, there is a hidden shortage of teachers in those subjects. The 1984 secondary school staffing survey showed that 13 per cent. of mathematics teachers and 18 per cent. of physics teachers were without higher education qualifications in those subjects. If those who study maths and physics as subsidiary subjects in higher education are included in the definition of the fully qualified, the figures rise to 28 per cent. and 29 per cent. respectively. According to the 1986 document of the Department of Education and Science, "Action on Teacher Supply in Mathematics, Physics and Technology", only 45 per cent. of mathematics tuition and 57 per cent. of physics tuition was being provided by graduates in those subjects.

The same problem arises in other subjects, including chemistry. I am interested and pleased to note that the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who I know is concerned with the Royal Society of Chemistry, is in his place.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) will be aware of the concern of the Royal Society of Chemistry that urgent action is required to increase the supply of chemists into teaching. The hon. Gentleman will know that there are special initiatives in play in physics, for example, which have resulted in an improvement in numbers. In 1985 there were 255 post-graduate certificate of education courses, which was improved to 527. Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree that no such action is proposed by the Department of Education and Science for chemistry. That must be wrong when we take account of the public interest. The number of candidates presenting themselves for a postgraduate certificate in chemistry is down by one third this year compared with the figure for last year. Is it not proper that there should be similar bonuses and initiatives for chemistry, where the problem is even more marked than in the other disciplines?

Mr. Thomspon:

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The survey on which I based my remarks was directed especially to physics and mathematics. On receiving correspondence from the Royal Society of Chemistry, I was as surprised and concerned as the hon. Gentleman. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science will respond to this issue along with the other matters that I am raising.

An especially alarming feature of the results of the survey on qualifications that was conducted by Manchester university is the disparities that it has revealed. Only a quarter of the staff in maintained schools with pupils up to the age of 16 years were trained graduates. There were twice as many in schools in the maintained sectors, with students up to 18. There were almost three times as many independent schools. This means that at the earlier stage of education the hidden shortage is worst.

It is equally clear that some schools have responded to the lack of mathematics and physics teachers by adjusting their timetables. Typically, this has been done by reducing the number of subject periods per set and by limiting the number of sets. This had occurred in five of the 26 schools surveyed for mathematics and in four of the 26 for physics that were included in the Manchester university study. We therefore have a vicious cirle. A lack of qualified teachers leads to a reduction of subject time allowed. That leads to a lack of enthusiastic young people taking these subjects to a higher level. The vicious circle can continue unless action is taken.

We can see the impact of inadequate training in these vital areas in the number of those abandoning study. Only a quarter of those who took O-level physics went on to A-level work. Significantly, there was a disproportionately high female drop-out rate. Of those who passed A-level of all pupils, roughly one in seven went on to take a degree in either subject at a university. Just over 5 per cent. of graduates in maths and physics entered teacher training in 1986.

This winnowing process is at least partly due to the fact that unqualified and under-qualified teachers play so large a part in the process of instruction. Nonetheless, it remains disturbing that accurate figures on the number of teachers in both disciplines in service remain hard to come by. The Interim Advisory Committee on Teachers' Pay and Conditions found this to be a general problem in its recent report. There is some evidence that the wastage rates for maths and physics teachers has been rising, and this rate of loss must be of concern.

Even more serious is the apparent gap between the demand for teachers in maths and physics and the supply. Whatever assumptions are made, it is clear that there is a shortage now, possibly more than 2,000, and that there is the prospect of an even more serious shortfall developing by the mid-1990s.

Other countries have experienced similar problems. The teaching of maths and physics cannot be considered in a vacuum. The attraction of other professions, in status and pay, must be taken into account. If severe difficulties are to be avoided, I believe that a wider approach may be required.

The Manchester university report showed that in mathematics under 30 per cent. of graduates were women, yet women comprised more than 50 per cent of those entering teaching. In physics the imbalance is even more striking. Given the interest in teaching among women graduates, action should be taken to increase the number of girls taking mathematics and physics in schools. I urge the Government to consider introducing a national career break scheme to encourage more women to enter teaching. I am informed that Kent local education authority has recently introduced such a scheme.

There appear to be discrepancies between the figures of the Department of Education and Science and those provided by other bodies which require urgent resolution. I hope that the Minister can help me on that. I urge him to consider the establishment of a comprehensive database for in-service teachers. That will show the extent of subject shortages, hidden and suppressed, throughout the country.

As a corollary, an analysis should be made of staff movements within the education system and out of it. We need to know how many teachers are moving into other posts, into administrative jobs, and how many are leaving to have children, to retire or for other reasons. Only then will it be possible to consider the shape and scale of the training programmes for new recruits and for former teachers hoping to re-enter the profession. It is, regrettably, clear that many graduates would prefer the larger salaries and better working conditions to be found in commerce and industry. It may be necessary to offer financial incentives to attract such people into the classroom.

I know that my hon. Friend understands those issues. I fully support the Government's intentions in establishing a national curriculum in which maths, science and technology will play a prominent role.

The measures that have been taken to provide bursaries for prospective maths and physics teachers studying for a postgraduate certificate of education have my full support. Could those bursaries be transferred to those who take up posts? I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion in his reply. The provision of in-service training and the recruitment of new teachers through the Teaching As a Career unit are useful initiatives.

I welcome the Education Reform Bill, and many of its measures are relevant to this debate. In a recent paper that I wrote with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright)—"A New Strategy for Education"—we would not only have secured the place of maths and physics in the curriculum, but would have created a professional teachers' council and a local pay bargaining mechanism at school level to help to restore the status of teachers. It is with individual teachers' sense of their professional standing, of their financial rewards and of their morale that an important part of the solution lies.

The CBI's response to the circular of the Department of Education and Science on this subject stated that the teaching profession needs to be made attractive, by giving status and appropriate conditions of service, which should include annual assessment, career development and chances of advancement. It acknowledges that teaching is a vocation and that, unless rewards are adequate in the market place, employers will up the ante by offering higher salaries elsewhere.

We should not rule out measures to obtain the short-term secondment of staff from industry or the recruitment of qualified teachers or technicians now working outside the profession on a long-term basis. I believe that technician support for science departments in schools is important and will help with the general problem. Time does not allow me to develop that theme, but I hope that my hon. Friend will bear it in mind.

Mathematics and physics are two of the key disciplines on which the modern industrial world rests. Britain cannot afford to be out-distanced by its competitors in passing on that body of knowledge to the next generation. The fact that the importance of the issue has been recognised inside and outside the House is encouraging. The Government have responded positively to the concerns of the teaching profession, the universities and the Engineering Council. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to carry that process further in his reply.

Photo of Mr Bob Dunn Mr Bob Dunn , Dartford 1:19 am, 11th July 1988

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) on a most thoughtful and constructive speech. Those of us who have known him for some time recognise that he always makes a major contribution to our debates, and his speech tonight was in that vein. I was equally pleased to hear the short intervention of the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who spoke about his connection with the Royal Society of Chemistry. We also recognise the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown), who always takes an interest in such matters and who had a long connection with the world of local government education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North has introduced an important matter, and I give an undertaking that I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the points that he and the hon. Member for Swansea, East made.

Britain has never been in greater need of people skilled in mathematics and the physical sciences so necessary to ensure that our industry can compete in the fast-changing world of the 1990s. We shall not have those people unless we have teachers to teach them, but it is precisely because those skills are in such high demand that those who have them are eagerly sought out by employers, against whom those who recruit people into teaching must compete.

We have long recognised that special attention must be paid to ensuring that there are enough maths and physics teachers to teach in our schools. That is why we have had a teacher shortage action programme in place for about two years, much of it built up on the basis of recommendations reaching us in response to a consultation document that we published on the issue two years ago. The result has been dramatic: since 1985 we have reversed the trend of decline in intakes to initial teacher training in the shortage subjects.

In 1986, as the report from which my hon. Friend quoted made clear, only 741 students started postgraduate certificate of education courses in maths and 341 in physics. In 1987, those two figures had risen by 29 per cent. and 41 per cent. respectively. It can be no coincidence that that took place over the first year of our action programme to combat teacher shortages, of which the main weapons are a bursary, tax-free, to trainee teachers in these subjects paid on top of their grant of £1,200 for 1986–87, which has risen to £1,300 in the next academic year, the use of national and local advertising, and the setting up of our Teaching As a Career unit—known as TASC—to promote teaching and improve its image.

All this had an effect on numbers last year, and is continuing to have an effect, even though applications for teacher training courses in maths and physics are not as buoyant this year as they were at the same time last year. But it is too early to say what the final recruitment figures are like, and I am still confident that the reversal of trend secured during the past two years will continue.

We are also spending six times more money than we are spending on direct recruitment on in-service training for the large number of teachers, also mentioned by my hon. Friend, who are teaching maths and physics without being properly qualified to do so. We call this the hidden shortage, and it is in many ways much more serious than the overt shortage of unfilled teaching posts in maths and physics, which are at their lowest level for many years. We intend to continue to offer substantial retraining and upgrading opportunities for under-qualified teachers through our training grants scheme to ensure that we have the right number of teachers that we need with the right qualifications to teach these vital subjects in the 1990s.

We have funded distance learning television-based and text-based in-service training materials in maths and science for use in upgrading the skills of those teachers who cannot be spared from the classroom.

Attracting new undergraduate recruits to teaching and upgrading existing teachers' skills is not, however, enough. The number of young people declines for demographic reasons in the 1990s just when the pupil population increases, so we need to make sure that we are tapping other sources of teachers to the full. We cannot expect teaching to take more than its fair share of scarce young qualified manpower.

That is why part of our action programme focuses on attracting older, experienced people into teaching from other careers. Surprisingly large numbers of people in industry and other walks of life often want to change to teaching. Their experience enriches the classroom. We are also encouraging local authorities to look at ways of maximising the use of another great undertapped pool of teaching talent—those who are qualified teachers but currently out of service. Many are, typically, married women who left the profession to have a family. Many are willing to return and local education authorities and schools may need to offer job-sharing opportunities and refresher courses to tempt them back.

All in all, we would maintain that we are already doing pretty well everything enjoined upon us by the recommendations of the report quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. It is too early to say whether the coverage of our action programme, or its intensity, is inadequate. We are in any case doing rather more than the report suggests. The Teaching As a Career unit, for instance, has started to make a real impact with its catchy national advertising, well-produced literature and videos and continuous appearance on the undergraduate milk round, at careers fairs and at seminars and conferences all over the country, as well as counselling some of the very significant number of older people in other careers to whom I have referred who actually want to come into teaching.

Contrary to what the report alleges, over 80 per cent. of our first cohort of bursary holders were teaching in maintained schools last autumn, a higher proportion than most PGCE graduates. We are, as the House knows, making proposals to simplify routes to qualified teacher status, to make changing to teaching more attractive to suitable people with financial and other commitments that make it difficult for them to undertake full-time training with no commitment of a job at the end of it.

We shall go on doing all these things and we shall step up our activities if the reversal of the trend shows any signs of falling back into decline. In spite of the turmoil of the last few years and in spite of constant denigration of their own profession as a career by teachers themselves, people want to come into teaching. We believe that they will find teaching in the new world of the national curriculum and higher standards in our schools will be much more exciting, challenging and rewarding. We are convinced that this, together with the new pay structure, which also allows incentive allowances to be paid to teachers of shortage subjects, will encourage the teachers whom we need to stay in teaching. We are making more money available than ever to enable local education authorities to make improvements to the teaching environment.

I turn to the figures quoted by my hon. Friend. We all know that we can do anything with statistics. It is of course theoretically possible that we could be short of up to 12,000 maths teachers by 1995, as the report quoted by my hon. Friend maintains, but it is also theoretically possible for us to have more maths teachers than we need by the same date. It all depends on the assumptions that we put into the supply and demand bits of the equation. We think that those who wrote the report have missed out some key assumptions and have given an unnecessarily pessimistic weight to others.

We shall be in a better position to assess the demand for teachers in these subjects in the 1990s when we have digested the maths and science subject working group reports that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has just received. We shall have better estimates of the current supply of maths and physics teachers when we have the results later this year of the survey of secondary teachers that we have brought forward by a year. We shall then be in a position to assess what risk there is of a shortfall and its possible extent. We are well aware, as both hon. Members have said, that we must keep up the pressure. We believe that our programme of measures to combat teacher shortages has at least a good chance of reducing the shortfall to nothing. We certainly think that it should be given more of a chance to show whether it will.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) for their contributions to the debate. We are fully aware of the problems and I believe that I have suggested some solutions to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past One o'clock.