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Anxiety over recruitment reaches new height

The gathering teacher recruitment crisis is now worse than in the economic boom years of the 1980s, and the Government has been warned that the lack of good staff could destroy its plans for turning round failing schools.

There has been such a marked collapse of interest in the profession that even English and history, subjects that have traditionally inspired thousands of student teachers with missionary zeal, are now at risk for the first time ever.

English has joined maths, science, foreign languages and technology as subjects expecting to get fewer applicants than there are training places available.

Geography is also facing difficulties for the first time.

Meanwhile, the growing shortage of headteachers jeopardises the Government's new plans for compulsory headship qualifications, according to heads' leaders.

Advertisements in The TES for the first four months of the year show headship vacancies at 40 per cent above last year for primary and nearly 60 per cent higher in the secondary sector.

The improving economy, a growth in the number of children and the recent history of political attacks on the profession have all been blamed for the shortage of trainees.

The sudden increase in vacant headships is thought to be connected with the last government's attempt to shut down the early retirement scheme.

There is also a mismatch between the location of university training centres, and the places with the greatest need of teachers - frequently urban and socially deprived.

The Government's training quango, the Teacher Training Agency, is known to be concerned that the problem will be made worse if Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education recommends a regional structure for HE.

"This shortage really is an important problem for the government," said Professor Alan Smithers from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University.

"Labour's aspirations for schools will not be met if it isn't able to get people into the classroom. It's the poor schools that are going to suffer."

Speaking at Tony Blair's education "summit" shortly before Labour's election victory, the head of Phoenix School in Hammersmith, West London, William Atkinson, told the Prime Minister that the biggest problem facing inner-city schools is attracting and keeping good staff.

Phoenix School has been used by Labour as an example of a school that was closed down and given a "fresh start" and a new name.

"The policy announced this week of improving schools found to be failing isn't going to be realisable unless there are good teachers in the system as a whole," said Professor Smithers.

"The problem now is greater than in the Eighties, when history, geography and English were OK. People want to be joining a profession of which they can be proud. This has been a very difficult decade for teachers. They have been blamed for most of society's ills."

Applications to train in English are running at only 85 per cent of last year's totals. But the worst problems are still faced by the traditional shortage subjects - of maths, science and modern foreign languages

The gravest shortage of all is in designtechnology where applications have fallen from 392 at this time last year to 235. The target is 903.

Last week the Government confirmed that it will introduce a mandatory qualification scheme for all would-be headteachers. Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett promised to incorporate the work of the TTA, which has just outlined the details of its National Professional Qualification for Headship.

"In the future no one will be appointed as a new school leader until they have demonstrated that they are fully trained to accept and carry out the responsibilities of leadership," said Mr Blunkett.

Headteachers have been pressing for a training scheme and welcomed the announcement. But they also warned the new Government that it could exacerbate the nationwide recruitment problem which affects both primary and secondary schools.

"This will have to be introduced very sensitively," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Assocation of Headteachers.

"Schools are already finding it very difficult to recruit headteachers in many parts of the country. The need to acquire a mandatory rigorous qualification might depress applications further."

The headteachers' unions have also told the Government that the training programme cannot be funded from existing school budgets. The NAHT has asked for an extra #163;30 million from central government.

"All candidates for the NPQH must be guaranteed funding," said Mr Hart, whose association meets for its annual conference next week.

"Any suggestion that they should use the school budget or dip into their own pockets is unacceptable and highly discriminatory. "

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