Freeing up the teacher training market has some advantages. But if recruitment targets are to be met, the artificial distinction between school-led and university training should be removed

The National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) last week announced a new way of managing trainee teacher recruitment for 2016/17. Instead of allocating places direct to training providers, providers will be allowed to recruit as many trainees as they want until national limits for each phase (primary and secondary) and each secondary subject have been met.

Freeing up the market has some advantages. Preventing training providers from recruiting above their allocation in particular subjects when there is a demand for those teachers in local schools, as happens now, makes no sense at all. The new approach will also increase choice for trainees, removing at least some of the artificial barriers that can prevent them from training where they choose as there will no longer be limits on the number of places available at specific providers.

But there are risks. The NCTL will have to have separate national pots of places for, first, so-called “school-led” provision and, second, for training delivered in partnership between schools and universities.

The setting of national targets is not an exact science

It is clear from various pronouncements that “school-led” training is the government’s preferred option, and its share of the national pot is described as a “minimum”, with universities left with whatever remains once school-led has had its share.

The crude “school-led”/”university” distinction fails, however, to take account of the fact that a lot of training delivered through universities is at least as “schools-led” as that delivered through, for example, School Direct.

Placing too tight a cap on university recruitment could perversely undermine some genuinely “schools-led” training as well as reducing overall levels of recruitment. And universities will be prevented from opening new subject lines when no such restriction is placed on school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) or School Direct, representing a blatantly unfair and unjustifiable constraint on the market.

If recruitment targets are to be met, the artificial distinction between the two routes should be removed and a genuine market be allowed to operate. If the distinction is to remain, each pot will have to be sufficiently large and there should be scope to move places between the two in response to demand.

At a national level, NCTL has intimated that it will stop recruitment once national targets have been met.

But the setting of national targets is not an exact science, and the teacher supply model has in the past under-estimated the number of new teachers schools need in some subjects. Some flexibility will have to be built into the system. Protection will also have to be given to prospective trainees who are part-way through the application process when national caps are applied.

The great unknown is, of course, how people respond to the new system. It is possible that, in popular subjects such as primary and secondary PE, a small number of providers will recruit as many trainees as fast as they can until national caps are applied. That could, in theory, lead to regional imbalance and the closure of some very good quality programmes.

I think, however, that the professionalism in the sector, and the in-built constraints that exist through quality assurance mechanisms, will prevent this from happening.

But NCTL is right to retain reserve powers, just in case they are required. These powers could also be used to boost recruitment in some areas, as well as constrain it.

NCTL has said that this system is only guaranteed for one year. It will be fascinating to see whether it works.

In the longer term, however, we will need to develop a model that ensures the continuation of sustainable and research-informed teacher education partnerships that can meet the country’s long-term teacher supply needs. That is the objective we should all be striving to achieve.