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How we did it

Essex head Brenda Watson has been luring former pupils back to school in an attempt to beat the teacher shortage

Two years ago, we were suffering acute staff shortages. We had vacancies in science, English, history, IT - all over the place. We just couldn't fill them. So we set about contacting our former students.

This is an 11-16 school, so these were kids that we hadn't seen since their GCSE days. But there are always some who go through who you know are going to do well. They're intelligent and they're mature.

We rang their parents, and in quite a few cases the ex-students had just graduated, didn't know what they wanted to do, but loved the idea of living at home and earning while they did a postgraduate training qualification.

An increasing proportion of our staff - well over 15 per cent - are now ex-students. And they make fantastic teachers, with all sorts of advantages - they have street cred, they're wonderful role models. They have it all, really.

But we don't see this in any way as a short-term fix to the teacher shortage. It's a long-term strategy for training our own teachers. We decided it was better to be paying for teachers to train than pay for supply teachers.

Last year, we had 17 trainees on the graduate teacher programme and most of them are still here as NQTs. Four of the places were funded by the Teacher Training Agency, but we had to pay the salaries of the remaining 13. It made a big hole in the school's reserves.

This year, we advertised locally and held a graduate training recruitment fair - we had a good response, with graduates from all over the area; some of them knew of us, some didn't.

We filled our vacancies, and managed to help some other local schools to fill theirs. We have 14 graduate trainees on the programme, with another two due to start in January. We have applied to become a training school and are looking to extend our training to local primary schools.

The Ofsted report on the graduate teacher programme was quite damning. And there are schools who have seen it as a quick fix for teacher shortage and have inevitably fallen down on that and found that it doesn't work - the quality isn't there, the support isn't there, and they lose the people again.

But here the programme is successful. We have put a huge investment into supporting trainees - for example, they don't have full timetables, they have half or 60 per cent ones.

In the long-term we haven't solved our recruitment problems. We're fully staffed, but recently there have been some resignations. We are in a "needs must" situation, and we've solved it proactively and successfully compared with other schools.

Having said that, I would rather be able to put an advert in The TES, like in the old days, and have 20 experienced teachers apply and be able to select the best. If only.

Brenda Watson is head of William Edwards school, Thurrock. She was talking to Martin Whittaker.

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