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Not such a vacant lot

For the second successive year, fewer posts remain to be filled

Reliable up-to-date information about teacher vacancies is not easy to find. Counting the number of adverts in The TES each week gives the best rough and ready guide, but most teachers want more specific evidence, especially about vacancies for the types of teaching posts that interest them.

One of the most reliable surveys has the advantage of a long track record: the January school census from the Department for Education and Skills collates vacancies alongside other information about who is working in the nation's state schools. The drawback is that January is now a long time in the past, before job losses and funding crises started to dominate the headlines.

Assuming that any funding crisis will not have made matters worse - in reality, it may have made things better by reducing the number of posts schools can offer - what did we learn from this year's census? The provisional figures were announced in April but they have recently been updated to include data for Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland keep their own records.

For the second year in succession, the figures for primary and secondary vacancies reveal a fall. Overall, the rate has declined from 1.3 per cent two years ago to just 0.9 per cent at the start of this year. Put another way, this is the equivalent of a drop of four vacancies per 1,000 teachers - from thirteen to nine per 1,000. That might seem like a small number, but it still represents some 3,500 unfilled vacancies in England and Wales.

The most noticeable improvement is in primary schools, where there are nearly 1,000 fewer vacancies: they fell by more than 40 per cent in 2001, and were down from 2,150 in that year to 1,150 this.

Vacancies in the primary sector are now at the lowest level since 1997.

With even more primary teachers having finished PGCE courses this summer than in 2002, the total could drop still further by the next census.

Indeed, it would logical to expect the number to go below 500 next January.

If so, this would be lower than the previous best of 760 recorded in 1994, at the top of the last recruitment boom.

In special schools, the reduction has been less dramatic. Vacancies in London appear to have risen, at least when measured as a percentage of the teaching force. If Professor Tim Brighouse has the time, this might be an area for the London commissioner for schools to instigate some action. At 56 vacancies per 1,000 posts, the rate in inner London is unacceptably high; and outer London, at 41 per 1,000, is not far behind.

Vacancies in secondary schools, where rolls are still generally rising, were only down from 13 per 1,000 teachers last year to 11 this January. At this level, they are only some 400 vacancies below the record highs of 2001.

However, the good news is that, apart from IT and business studies, there was a fall in the vacancy rate in all other subject areas. Nevertheless, many subject areas still have vacancy levels at least double what they were in 1997 when Labour came into office.

Languages are an exception. The change in the national curriculum, together with the additional supply of staff from other parts of Europe, appears to have reduced the demand for language teachers so that the vacancy rate has almost halved in the past two years.

Most of the vacancies are for classroom teachers. The market for senior staff is generally less affected by funding issues than that for classroom teachers; after all, every school needs a headteacher. However, even this market would be affected if the concept of a federation of schools were to catch on: in this, one head could become responsible for a group of schools. Schools are still creating new assistant headteacher posts as a part of senior management teams, although in some cases they are just upgrading existing posts rather than creating totally new posts.

Overall, the downward trend in vacancy figures from the high levels of 2001 is good news for schools, parents and the Government. However, they contain a warning to trainee teachers whose numbers have reached record highs this year, once all those on degrees and PGCEs are added to those on the employment based routes, fast track and the teach first initiative. The days of being able to pick and choose jobs are ending, if they have not already disappeared. Finding a teaching post in the next few years, before the leap in the numbers of those taking retirement starts later in the decade, may be tougher than at any time since the mid-1990s.

John Howson is visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University and a director of Education Data Surveys

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