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Lift the debt millstone

Loans should be written off for students training to teach shortage subjects to help less popular schools, writes Alan Garofall

There is no doubt that some schools are more difficult to teach in than others. These schools are usually located in areas of social deprivation, with high unemployment, low earnings and higher than average numbers of single parents and dysfunctional and abusive family situations.

This is reflected in a lack of parental support for the educational process. Truancy is often condoned, teachers are less respected, homework is seen as a low priority and many children receive little encouragement in terms of parental interest or the provision of books, materials or facilities at home.

Achievement is, therefore, well below the national average. Many children see the whole educational process as an irrelevance to their lives. They are made to study maths, science, French and the full range of our national curriculum. They are not successful, become bored and entertain themselves with disruptive behaviour.

This is not to say that there are no "good" children. In fact, most do want to learn, are responsible, polite and fun to be with, but the effect of the disaffected minority is totally out of line with their numbers. These effects range from the bullying of children and staff to the creation of an atmosphere in which respect is gained through disruption, and peer group pressure acts to suppress progress.

Children are almost ashamed or afraid to admit they work hard, while teachers struggle to create a situation in which they can use their expertise.

To be a good teacher is difficult in the best of circumstances. To make a real difference in the schools I have described can be intolerably challenging.

At present the country is facing a crisis in teacher supply. The Government pays lipservice to plans for improvement but the truth is that the system is in severe danger. The only way many schools can function is by employing Australians, South Africans, Canadians and New Zealanders, during their world tours, and raiding developing countries, particularly Africa. Many of these recruits are very competent but others experience insoluble cultural difficulties trying to settle into a foreign educational system. It comes as no surprise that more of our home-trained teachers choose to work in schools in the middle and higher areas of the league tables, where more children want to learn and parents are mainly supportive.

This means that the schools which already face great challenges for socio-economic reasons are prevented from performing by staffing shortages.

Children thrive in an ordered and consistent environment where they can feel confident and comfortable in their relationships with skilled professional teachers. They know when they are getting a raw deal - they have no respect for supply staff and they will not learn when faced by 12 different science teachers over their two-year GCSE course. Schools do need to keep improving. The way to achieve this is by ensuring an adequate supply of well-trained, well-motivated recruits and making the job sufficiently rewarding to retain them.

Those who choose to teach in "difficult" schools are rewarded at present by terrible stress at work, league table positions that imply poor performance and Office for Standards in Education reports which, at best, accept that there are valid reasons for the poor results. All this gives knowledgeable parents more reasons for sending their middle-class, intelligent children elsewhere and more motivation for hard-pressed, able teachers to follow them.

It is against this background that the Government, committed to raising opportunity for all, is now intending to increase the burden of tuition fees for university courses. The likelihood is that a student graduating in three or four years' time will have accrued debts of pound;20,000 or so.

Teachers, like nurses and other public-service employees, are already poorly paid. It is no coincidence that recruitment and retention is a problem. The job is increasingly difficult, the pay is inadequate and starting out with a major millstone of debt will tip the balance further.

Any team is only as good as its weakest member. We must make sure that the best, the most able, the most competent, the most caring are recruited to the profession. The student loan should be written off for public-service employees in shortage areas. If the debt is pound;20,000 it could be written off at, say, pound;1,000 per year over a 20-year period which would give another reason to stay in the job.

This would have an effect on initial recruitment, but we also need positive action to make sure all schools, particularly those in difficult circumstances, are properly staffed. This might be done with a combination of increased resourcing and recognising the superb contribution career teachers make in devoting their working lives to the schools and children that really need them.

Alan Garofall was for 23 years deputy head of Northfields technology college in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. He is now retired

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