Dear Mr Blair
The debate over whether my local education authority should keep the 11-plus is hotting up. In addition, I've long been sceptical about your government's introduction of advanced skills teachers.
Most AST posts are for literacy and numeracy. they appear to be non-existent in many curriculum areas, including my own. And despite your government's expressed intentions, they are also non-existent in many education action zones, including my own. By my calculations, just one in every 2,000 teachers now has advanced skills status. Yet the need to recruit and retain exceptional teachers has never been greater.
A head of department colleague working in an affluent area tells me she receives an average of 70 applications for each main scale teaching post advertised. The same department in my own school - which the Office for Standards in Education judged "a good school" but which is in an inner city area - received only four responses to an advertisement. Three of the applicants would not have lasted five minutes in the classroom and the other had no teaching qualification. Meanwhile, even our least competent science PGCE student teachers are snapped up the moment they apply for their first job.
Some heads are reassured that they will be able to retain the best teachers more easily in future since the best practitioners will be able to go "over the pay threshold". But how much, if any, new money will really be forthcoming for this?
Even if selective education is abolished in my LEA, the effect on our secondary schools will be limited. The middle-class grammar schools will become middle-class comprehensives, and the deprived secondary moderns will become deprived comprehensives.
For, however biddable many of our pupils are, we have a disproportionate number of pupils whose difficult lives make them difficult to teach. These are pupils whose parents would not have the faintest hope of getting into the local equivalent of the London Oratory.
Richard Riddell, Bristol's director of education, recognised in the TES (April 9, 1999) that urban schools need new solutions in the form of a new pedagogy. Finding such solutions can only come about through employing large numbers of highly qualified and talented teachers.
Glamorous advertising campaigns and sporadic teacher training bursaries may bring in a few extra recruits, but they do nothing to put the best recruits where they are most needed if we are to make a real difference to the education of the lowest 40 per cent.
The quality of new recruits remains a matter of great concern. Although the number starting a BEd with the equivalent of two Bs and a C at A-level has risen, a quarter of students on these courses have less than two Ds and an E (TES, September 10, 1999). It is odds-on that most of the latter will find their way into schools with the greatest need for well-qualified staff.
The pro-11-plus lobby cites Germany as an example of how a selective secondary system leads to high standards for all. This argument conveniently ignores two points.
First, Germany has one of the highest staying-on rates in Europe whereas we have one of the lowest (and it is invariably low in LEAs which still have secondary modern schools), and second, German teachers are the best paid in Europe.
Even if the remaining secondary moderns disappear, the problems many of them share with a depressingly large number of comprehensives will not. Your Chancellor, Mr Brown, is apparently sitting on a pound;10 billion surplus. Professor Steve Jones has stated that the quickest way to increase people's IQ does not involve genetics but doubling teachers' pay. QED?
Yours ever hopefully, Jenny Owl
Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The author is a head of department in the north-west