Newly qualified teachers might be forgiven for wondering what exactly is going on. Is it, as Graham Farrell of the NASUWT says, "the statistics of the madhouse"? Or is it, as the more staid voices of the Teachers Review Body might put it, the inevitable result of teachers taking ever earlier retirement, an ageing profession and the population beginning to "bulge"?
Expect more statistics on redundancies and LEA cutbacks in the spring unless the recommendations of the Teachers Review Body, usually released in early February, are met in full - highly unlikely by the standards of recent years. Yet also expect a panic about a shortage of primary teachers, even though there may be up to 400,000 "inactive" teachers (there are up to 200,000 non-working members on the unions' rolls).
Derek Lawrence, ex-headteacher, ex-teacher recruitment officer for Bexley and now co-director of fast-growing independent recruitment consultants START (South Thames Area Recruitment Team), sees the current situation as "very, very confused". It is confusing for NQTs because the previous recruiting structures are breaking down and new ones are piecemeal at best; it is confusing for young professionals because the overall profile of the profession is under seige.
Lack of strategic planning means that areas of greatest need, such as early years, information technology, maths and science (all to be targeted under the TTA's plans) were not foreseen when they could have been. In 1992 Mr Lawrence had advised the then Department for Education that on its own figures school rolls were to rise by 1.5 per cent per year until 2002 at least. Yet the DFE immediately cut the numbers for primary BEd courses by 5 per cent.
Is it surprising that early years teachers are in extremely high demand? Or that in three to five years' time, as the bulge works its way up the school population, core subject teachers in maths, science and English will be very high on everyone's wish list?
The 20,000 or so students about to graduate from 116 teacher training colleges nationally need not be too worried, Derek Lawrence says, as long as they are prepared to be flexible. Demand for teachers remains highest in the South-east and supply highest in the North. One Bradford middle-school teacher reports 70 to 80 applicants for any job, whereas START would expect the same number for jobs in a whole authority.
But in many cases, of course, jobs are not advertised by the local education authority or, if advertised, not administered, or if administered and checked not interviewed, or if interviewed not contracted. The system of local management of schools and devolution of finance has meant that many personnel departments of LEAs only offer advice to schools - and even that only when asked.
Such is the case, for example, in Cornwall, where about 60 school vacancies were filled last year, but also in Bradford, where the LEA limits its role to co-ordinating press advertisements and has no idea how many posts are filled. Other authorities are rumoured simply to keep piles of application forms in a room in which heads can rummage on the off-chance - references and police-vetting to be done by schools.
Those LEAs which do operate the old pool system (see page 6) may do so only for primary schools, as in Camden where 25 applicants out of 90 were last year offered primary jobs. Authorities such as Birmingham offer a two-tier system: last year, out of 600-700 interviews, 276 candidates were chosen for a primary pool of recommendations (having been checked and vetted) and 200 were simply placed on a database for secondary schools to check for themselves. In the North the pool system is closer to its origins, with Salford choosing 60 to 70 of its teachers out of 350 applicants, though with headteacher input in interviews. And in Suffolk headteachers have agreed to subscribe to a teacher recruitment officer, with admin back-up from the LEA, to place about 200 teachers.
"Teachers are still waiting for that five-year moratorium on change promised by the Government," says Graham Farrell of the NASUWT. In a situation of more-or-less constant flux young NQTs who do not mind moving or altering their subject specialisms should not worry unduly, says Derek Lawrence. "Some northern authorities close their books in February but the action takes place now in early April, May, even June," he says, citing one junior-school headteacher who had a complete staff at the summer half-term and returned from the break to find two pregnancies, two promotions and two early retirements. Many headteachers in this position are slow to realise that it is now up to them to fill these gaps, to specify jobs, advertise, interview, take up references and vet their candidates with the police.
Such recruitment procedures cost schools a lot of money and the good news for NQTs - but bad news for the experienced teachers which they will become - is that cheaper (or more "enthusiastic" as the advertisements put it) staff become more attractive in a time of dwindling budgets. Says John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, "We are a bit cynical. Key people, over 50 and with enormous experience, are being made redundant because of expense and never mind experience".
Could the furore over new training places for teachers and increased redundancies be evidence of a "self-inflicted wound" as John Bangs puts it? Or is it the birth pangs of a regenerating system with "challenging" targets, as Anthea Millett claims?
Either way, with career help in teacher training colleges melting in parallel with the dissolution of LEA services, the best advice to NQTs is: apply as many times as possible, to as many jobs in as many places as you can. And don't panic.