Zugzwang: The First Move Dilemma Created by NCTL Non-allocations

After some rumour – on 23rd June 2015 NCTL made the surprise announcement that after many years of making direct allocations to providers (telling providers how many trainee teachers they were allowed to train) – they were going to trial a system of not making allocations:

…We know that you have often found our allocations process complicated and you have been frustrated when you have not received the number of places you asked for. We have therefore simplified the process for the distribution of ITT places, and for the 2016 to 2017 academic year we will not be making direct allocations (NCTL 2015).

Amongst various spin was the message (and some belief) that this meant providers really could recruit as many as they wanted. A couple of weeks after the announcement I am still meeting people who think this is the removal of recruitment caps – so for the benefit of them:

…However, to insure against over recruitment and ensure sufficient national trainee coverage whilst protecting individual school and ITT provider viability we will also operate a number of controls on recruitment. These controls will place a stop on recruitment when certain thresholds are met (NCTL 2015).


So to paraphrase Marie Antoinette – you can eat as much cake as you can – but we are not telling you how much cake there is or when you will be full! Ultimately this is a controlled opaque process with some significant caveats:

…This control will allow for moderate growth in school-led provision where such demand exists (NCTL 2015).

As yet ‘moderate’ is not defined but this is a process that will favour school led (as yet undefined) provision and the extent of the growth is not being declared yet. However whilst this might indicate overall growth and create a warm glow amongst ‘school led’ providers the reality is ‘school led’ providers are now equally competing in an expanding market. A further interesting caveat is this message:

…Whilst we would expect to see some expansion at individual school or provider level we would not expect this to be at the expense of quality (NCTL 2015).

The above is interesting as again there is no defining of quality in this context. If anything this system would appear to penalise those that actively remain diligent and seek the best ‘quality’ candidates. Ultimately any provider of Primary, History, PE and English (the likely areas to meet national recruitment targets) are up against an invisible clock and at some stage – we don’t know when – they will be told to stop recruiting:

…We will write to lead schools and ITT providers if a course is close to meeting one of the recruitment control thresholds and again if it is met (NCTL 2015).

So what might be an underlying rationale for the change in approach?

Well, whilst trying to give the impression this is a freeing up of the market – this is very much the direct manipulation of the market whilst absolving NCTL of the unpopular decision making process associated with the previous allocations model.

On this basis I understand their decision-making. Why be unpopular each year when trying to allocate with a methodology that made little sense?

What this model does however do is directly moves allocations specifically away from previous performance and contradicts previous messaging from NCTL – but hey this is a new government!

The model is however a specific attempt to manipulate the market that NCTL have directly created and this is what I find the most interesting. Essentially in a small number of subjects/routes it would appear providers are going to be incentivized to recruit as quickly as possible (whether they wish to or not) as they are competing against each other before the finishing line comes to them – the Hunger Games of Providers!




In game theory this is called the ‘first move dilemma’ where the welfare of the individual (or provider) is dependent on the actions of others. If the majority of providers pursue a quick recruitment policy (and potentially reduce quality) then the welfare of the minority reduces! NCTL’s changing the rules of the game forces a change of each providers often long established and previously held (game) strategy.

As such we have a situation of zugzwang where those who don’t wish to make a move are forced to make a move – exactly what NCTL want in relation to changing behaviours related to the speed of recruitment but potentially this could backfire in terms of quality! Forcing the market and manipulating the market is a dangerous game and as yet we don’t yet know of the unintended consequences this will create in the behaviour of applicants and providers – watch this space!