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Gaps in data hide a specialist shortage

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So opens Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities. In many respects, the same might be said about the present state of the teacher job market. As figures revealed in this week's TES show, many schools, especially in the secondary sector, have never had it so good and are able to recruit a crop of graduates that has never been better.

But what's good news for schools is bad news for many trainees looking for their first teaching post. Many newcomers are being forced to move to other parts of the country to find jobs while experienced teachers hoping to return after a career break are also struggling.

Even so, schools are now better staffed than they have been for more than a generation. Yet delve deeper and the picture is less rosy. For a start, the Government still doesn't compile reliable figures to show how many specialist teachers there actually are in the system. That means we do not know how many classes are being taught subjects by teachers not qualified to teach them. These hidden shortages need to be identified and addressed if we are serious about achieving a further rise in standards in secondaries. For the next few years, recruitment for middle and senior leadership positions will also be harder than for mainscale classroom teachers.

Nevertheless, after the staffing crisis at the start of the decade, schools have benefited from programmes such as Teach First and the employment-based routes into teaching. This begs the question of whether the present golden period for school recruitment is sustainable or merely a transitory phase leading to an inevitable return to shortages. Falling pupil numbers will help, even if raising the leaving age to 18 might temporarily fuel shortages in some schools and colleges. Also, once the present retirement bulge is over, when the last of the "hippy" generation sign on for their bus passes, vacancy rates will return to more normal levels.

The only cloud on the horizon is a decline in interest in teaching among graduates this year. Were this to accelerate as it did after tuition fees were introduced in the late 1990s, the supply position might deteriorate rapidly. But it might take years for the Government to notice. Until now it has based its teacher supply decisions on data more in line with the age of Dickens' quill pen than sophisticated electronic tracking of the market that today's technology allows. Schools and teachers have the right to expect a labour market for teachers that works to the benefit of all.

John Howson is a director of Education Data Surveys

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