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Demand for supply

IN TIMES of crisis, people resort to traditional survival methods. School districts in Texas that are short of teachers go "rustling" across the state boundary. England, meanwhile, turns to the Commonwealth for reinforcements.

Yesterday, Croydon staged a gold-chained, mayoral reception for more than 20 young Australian teachers who were offered an assisted passage: antipodeans drafted in to fill this term's vacancies.

The talk is of the worst-ever teacher shortage. But London schools have been here before. We have seen Dutch teachers working with Bangladeshi children in Tower Hamlets, Irish staff in Newham, and Australasians everywhere. When the capital's staffing problems became desperate 20 years ago, a "press gang" was even sent to the Munich beer festival. As a deputy head points out this week (Letters, page 24), the bright-eyed back-packers who have been diverted from their European tour have often been excellent stop-gaps. But politicians have consequently been able to stifle a yawn and say "Crisis, what crisis?"

To his credit, David Blunkett has made some significant moves to improve recruitment; this week he doubled the numberof on-the-job training places in London that carry pound;13,000 salaries. A long-term solution to the problem of retaining teachers in our biggest cities would cost much more, particularly when teaching has such a bad image.

England's General Teaching Council, which is officially launched today, is charged with raising the status and standing of the profession. But in the meantime, as astute headteachers and the better recruitment agencies appreciate, it makes sense to cosset our supply staff.

Too many supply teachers feel undervalued, both financially and professionally. The wide disparities in agencies' pay and conditions are another source of frustration (page 6). There were hopes that the European employment directive that came into effect on July 1 would enable supply staff to demand the same pay and conditions as permanent teachers. But it is now clear that all they are entitled to is parity with other teachers employed by the same agency.

In the United States, supply teachers, frustrated with such legalised discrimination, recently drafted a "Bill of rights". Their British colleagues need a similar document of their own.

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