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Frontline workers who fight despair

Mike Ion proposes that the Government write off the debts of new teachers who choose to work in the most challenging schools

Teaching in some of our most challenging schools is not easy. Despite the rhetoric, Britain is still a nation of haves and have-nots. One by-product of the growing inequality that has been all too evident in the past 20 years is the despondency and sense of worthlessness that those at the bottom feel as even modest lifestyles have moved out of reach. The lack of self-worth of individuals and communities, the sense of despair, of alienation and powerlessness also need to be addressed. It is Britain's schools and teachers who are, and have been, key players in tackling many of these symptoms.

The reality is that it is our schools that can, and do, play a major role in helping to improve the life chances of our young people; it is our schools that are agents for change, agents for increased social mobility.

But there is a problem. Many of our teachers, like others working in the public sector, are demotivated, disaffected, poorly paid and working in wholly unsatisfactory conditions. It is no surprise therefore that both the recruitment and the retention of teachers is a huge problem. This is particularly the case in inner-city areas where a significant number of schools serve communities that are characterised by high levels of unemployment, low earnings and higher than average numbers of single parents. Teaching in these schools is more difficult than it is in others, but they are the very schools that need the most able, the most competent and the most caring teachers.

Teachers who "choose" to work in these schools are rewarded by enormous stress, league tables that imply "low" performance is the same as "poor" performance and conditions of service that have not improved for 50 years.

It is in this context that the Government, committed as it is to extending opportunity for all, will introduce student top-up fees from October 2006.

It widely accepted that this policy could well result in a student accruing debts of up to pound;20,000 by the time he or she graduates. What effect will this have on teacher recruitment in five to 10 years time? What hope do the most "challenged" schools have of recruiting the well-qualified, motivated and inspirational?

According to Tony Blair, Labour is at its best when at its boldest. Perhaps he is right. Now is the time to be bold, to put the education of our young people at the top of the agenda and to reward those that are willing to help the many and not the few. Can I respectfully suggest therefore that if the Government is to stave off massive shortfalls in teacher recruitment, if it is to continue with its moral crusade to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation then it should consider writing off the debts of all new teachers who choose to work in our most "challenged" schools.

For example: if a student graduates with a pound;20,000 debt it could be written off at the rate of pound;2,000 per year over a 10-year period (so helping to secure retention rates). If we are to continue to reduce both the reasons for and effects of social exclusion then the role currently played by our schools and teachers must not be underestimated. If steps are not taken to remove the barriers that prevent good graduates from applying to become teachers, let alone staying for more than a couple of years, then the vicious circle that haunts the urban poor will remain, if not widen.

Expand the numbers going onto university by all means and give the higher education sector the additional funding it desperately needs, but provide all the incentives possible in order to get our brightest and best working with our most desperate and disadvantaged.

Mike Ion is a former deputy headteacher and was Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Shrewsbury in 2005. He sits on the steering group of Comprehensive Future, a pro-Labour pressure group seeking to promote greater opportunity for all children through ending selection both by ability and aptitude

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