How posts stay vacant for lack of applicants

Crisis, what crisis? The scale of teacher shortages reported by schools up and down the land may not yet be as bad as in the late 1980s, when booming house prices made parts of the country no-go areas to many teachers, and children were being sent home because there weren't enough people to teach them.

But the picture which emerges from a survey, published exclusively in today's TES, clearly suggests we are heading that way. The combined effects of years of budget cuts, a funding system which penalises schools staffed by experienced teachers, an ever growing workload, and continuous pressure from politicans and inspectors, is taking its toll.

And with headteachers up and down the land, particularly in the inner cities and high-cost suburbs, predicting the situation will worsen next year, the implications for the new Government could not be clearer. Unless something urgently is done, its much-vaunted plans to make a quantum leap in school standards will fail.

The research - based on 800 primary and secondary schools - provides the most detailed portrait of school staffing since the height of the crisis in the late 1980s.

A further analysis of prospects for recruitment to teacher training (page 12) carried out by Brunel University researchers, supported by detailed supporting evidence from heads, indicates a steadily worsening situation. It was particularly bad in the secondary sector where traditional shortage subjects like modern languages, maths and science are set to be joined by other key subjects like English.

"We are not yet in the dire straits of seven years ago, but the indications are that we are heading in that direction," says Dr Pamela Robinson, who led the research. "There needs to be some radical rethinking of the training system and the way teachers are recruited. There needs to be higher status for teachers - more talking up of the profession, not talking down. Otherwise things will continue to get worse," she said.

The picture which emerges is a complex one, with schools forced to deal with a mlange of financial restraints, competition from employers in the rest of the economy (currently enjoying a sustained boom), and the combined effects of low staff mora le, cynicism and stress.

Take funding first. More than a third of secondary schools and a fifth of primaries say they have been forced to cut staffing this year to stay within budget; and both sectors report massive reductions in spending on books and equipment, repairs and maintenance and development. More than half of all schools report having to make cuts in their budgets at the start of this financial year in April and expect to have to make further cuts next year.

The effects of a funding formula, which makes older, more experienced staff more expensive, is frequently cited as causing problems. These have been further compounded in many schools by the decision by the last Tory government to cut back on teachers' entitlement to take early retirement, a ruling which the new Government shows no sign of overturning.

Comments from two schools illustrate some of the problems. The first comes from a comprehensive head in prosperous Hampshire.

"Funding cuts mean we must reduce total staff by cutting part-timers and we are increasingly having to make the curriculum reflect the financial situation. It is a switch from a curriculum-led budget to a budget-led curriculum."

The second, from the head of a primary school in Berkshire, also complains of the pressure to appoint the cheapest (invariably newly-qualified) teacher rather than the most suitable.

"Teachers are now classed by many schools as expensive or cheap. Experienced teachers are demoralised when attending interviews, doing well,and not being appointed. What other profession rewards experience with potential unemployment?"

While many schools are being forced to lay off staff to stave off a budget crisis, the supply of teachers is rapidly drying up. Although the overall proportion of schools with vacancies (a third of secondaries, a quarter of primaries) is manageable, vacancies in inner London and other areas are at critical levels. What is more, heads report that the situation is deteriorating.

But the real crisis is in the quality and number of applicants to posts. More than a quarter of secondary and a fifth of primary schools report difficulty in recruiting suitable staff, with many finding it difficult to attract even a handful of candidates. The situation is worst in key secondary subjects (see opposite) which have traditionally had to fight to attract recruits when the economy as a whole is buoyant.

For example, the head of an 11-18 comprehensive in Barking and Dagenham says: "We have advertised on three occasions for a head of modern languages and have yet to receive an application from a candidate worth interviewing. We are therefore currently in breach of our statutory requirement at key stage 4. The Office for Standards in Education will not like it when we are inspected this summer, but I am comfortable with our decision, rather than setting our students up for failure with a less than satisfactory teacher."

Another comment from the retiring head of a first school in picturesque Hereford and Worcester illustrates the difficulty many primary schools are experiencing in attracting senior staff: "Although there was luckily one really good applicant for the recent headship appointment I thought the number of applications was disappointing, especially considering that the school is ostensibly a very attractive proposition for a first headship."

As this comments suggests, it is not just pay which matters to would-be applicants. Heads report an exodus of experienced teachers with talent and commitment because of too many upheavals, excessive paperwork and the attitude of government ministers. Again, a sample of comments from heads included in the survey illustrate the depth of feeling.

The head of a junior school in Warwickshire, who boasts of a recent good report from OFSTED, remarks: "It is a pity that on the political stage the Government does not make it clear that many schools are doing an excellent job ... Teachers are sick of being criticised by people who do not have a clue what is happening at ground level."

And finally, the head of an 11-16 comprehensive in Warwickshire, no doubt aware of the degree of feeling over the new policy of deterring early retirements, observes: "Many teachers over the age of 50 are burnt out and disillusioned. It is not good to have experienced staff uncommitted to the task. Their influence can be crucial to the others at the school. We need to spend time and effort regenerating this cohort, and not simply looking to replace them."

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