Those who can’t afford it can’t teach

24 Oct 2020, 5:00

Amelia Hepburn was left bereft by last-minute cuts to bursaries that mean only those who can afford it can train to teach, and she is not alone

There are countless examples of people like me who have all the hope and knowledge to be a part of the teaching profession but lack the means to get in, and countless examples of those who, like me, inspired by committed teachers, have rethought their potential and fought tooth and nail for their own education. This week, the government made clear how much it values us.

As reported in these pages, financial support for teacher training has been cut, seeing essential bursaries stripped from those who need them most. The government’s claims to have made the change on account of “both recruitment to date and the future need for teachers in each subject” suggests the bursaries were only ever a financial incentive. Yet determined aspiring teachers don’t need a financial incentive. They need financial support. The effect of this policy will be to push out those from the state sector, leaving the door open only to those least in need of the financial aid bursaries provide. So much for social mobility.

I hoped to teach classics. To qualify for that PGCE, I became one of only 28.6 per cent of Oxford classics students who are state-educated. Undergraduate debts are commonly over £50,000, and then there are the costs of the PGCE: accommodation, food, books and travel. While funding for the classics PGCE still covers tuition fees, the bursary dropped by £16,000. Worse than that, it happened the day applications opened for next year’s PGCE. My peers and I were faced with the sudden realisation that our dreams had simply evaporated. Our choice: either accrue further debt or abandon teaching altogether. And before you ask, even if working to support ourselves was sustainable, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge prohibit it, precisely because it isn’t.

Our choice: either accrue further debt or abandon teaching altogether

This news has been a devastating blow. I was state school-educated and spent a year in the middle of my degree teaching in a state primary. I know the system and I know what it can do. I am a product of that system and all I wanted was to be a part of it. My school offered Latin lessons once a fortnight and introduced me to the subject I have loved ever since. I was determined to study it at university; I attended summer schools on bursaries for three consecutive summers, taught myself ancient Greek at lunchtimes and independently took the examination alongside my A-levels. All the while, I worked part-time from the age of 15 to support myself financially. I was offered a place to read classics at Cambridge but missed my grades on results day, silently affected by financial and familial pressures beyond my control.

Undeterred, I worked harder. I took the year out to earn and apply again, this time to Oxford. Having gained my place, the same old pressures reappeared. The family finances plummeted resulting in a house move, the third in just a few years. I desperately sought out support from any avenue: the university’s hardship fund, charitable trusts, scholarships. I worked every summer in catering, tutoring and any paid internship I could find. Two weeks ago, I spent a week observing lessons and school life at my old secondary school, eagerly preparing for a future in teaching. Days ago, I thought I’d made it. Today, once again, everything has changed.

If the government continues on this path, they may benefit in the short term from the recession-led spike in applications for teaching, but quality and diversity will be significantly reduced. Furthermore, the increasing financial burden weighing upon young teachers will only exacerbate the burn-out rate, which is already staggeringly high. Like every other teacher who sticks with it, I am prepared to work long and hard for limited pay. I’m no retention statistic in waiting.

But then it looks like I’m not a teacher in waiting any more either. I’m just left asking myself how ministers expect anything to change if they don’t invest in the kinds of teachers they need to make that change?

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  1. Remember its about supply and demand, not social mobility. Get just enough teachers to get someone in front of class and you’ve done your job in government. Of course schools often don’t get much of a choice of candidate as there isn’t any over capacity. So you end up choosing the best of an average lot, or worse as you need someone to be in front of class. I’m sure those in good schools /wealthy schools get a fair pick. Those in poorer areas not so much.

  2. The busaries had gotten so generous that people were making more in their training year than in their NQT year. It was attracting the wrong people and they weren’t sticking it out. Classics still has a £10k busary so your spend would only be £5k in living. What sort of life long teacher would pay £50k for an undergraduate and then baulk at £5k for one of the best teacher training programs in the world?

  3. Super fornicam

    If your heart is set on Classics then take the 10k bursary and the 9k PGCE loan. Don’t expect the Tories to reinstate the full 26k. Should Labour win the next election you may find the system is scrapped altogether in light of more pressing recruitment issues.

    Also, don’t rule out the impact of recession and economic hardship on middle class parents’ assets… this may necessitate cutbacks at some private schools. An English/History NQT with latin/greek A levels, or a joint English/Classics BA would represent greater value for money if the number of fee paying parents drops for a few years.

    Specialisation, as they say, is for insects. Try to make yourself as flexible as possible, but don’t lose hope for a better job market in 5-10 years time.

  4. Kim Scoble

    At the ripe old age of 42 I decided to go to University in order to become a teacher. I finish my degree this year and have been offered a teacher training place in September. The removal of the bursaries, leaves me with a 9K maintenance loan, my rent is 7.5k a year….wonder if I can live on £1500 for the year?? Devastated is an understatement