s I wait for my meeting with the head of a large secondary school in middle England, he finishes his phone call to Los Angeles to secure the appointment of an English teacher. "I never thought 10 years ago, I'd be making an appointment like this, based on a faxed reference," she says. "She sounded good." My next stop was Staffordshire, where a head reflected ruefully on the fact that he had just spent pound;20,000 - more than the take home pay of a newly-qualified teacher - on advertising three times for a maths teacher. Then on to Shropshire, where a market town primary school is losing three teachers from the profession this summer - two for stress-related reasons and one just to do something else - all of them under 40.
This is not hearsay, but on-the-ground evidence, volunteered as I talk with heads and teachers around the country. Some schools look set to be open for less than five days a week in September, in spite of the efforts of these committed, professional heads who are pulling out all the stops. Government is releasing more funding to schools, and with a rising secondary school population there are more teaching posts, but not enough teachers to fill them.
Equally worrying, how can we stop 40 per cent of new teachers from dropping out within five years of qualifying and experienced teachers from leaving or downshifting within the profession? The future looks no better, with 45 per cent of the workforce over 45. Recruitment strategies may keep numbers of new entrants buoyant, but care must be taken that such initiatives do not alienate existing newly-qualified teachers.
Over 100 teachers from Merseyside attended a meeting with the General Teaching Council to tell council members what they thought were the reasons for recruitment and retention difficulties. They responded with one resounding priority - time to do the job. This was repeated at meetings in Bristol and Leeds.
So what is the job? It's unrecognisable from when I, and many others in education but no longer in the classroom, taught in the 1970s. Professional practice has improved beyond recognition, the job is far more complex and sophisticated - and expectations of pupils are immeasurably higher. The issue of time is inextricably linked to the professional role of the teacher. The essence of the job is about continually making professional judgments on how to progress the learning of individuals and groups of students and it is that which gives teachers the buzz and the satisfaction of the job. But an increasing overload of instructions of what to teach and how to teach it is making many feel deprofessionalised. This isn't a wish to return to some rose-tinted past, but recognition that it is time to turn the profession around for the future, to generate goodwill and bring back the sense of motivation and confidence - of being trusted, respected and valued.
The GTC has worked on proposals, based on evidence over the eight months of its existence, which could begin to turn the tide. Our message is that the Government must realise that every new policy has an impact on teacher retention - neutrality is not an option in the current employment market. We ask the Government to consider and evaluate every initiative and announcement, before it is made, to check the impact on teachers staying or leaving.
Our priority is for funded professional time for every teacher through a planned, well-managed programme over the life of this Government so that some of the professional work that spills over from every lesson can be done in work time. We need teachers who will thrive not just survive in the job.
We ask Government to exemplify more flexible ways of organising the school day and week, including employing supernumerary teachers on a flexible part-time basis (this is a predominantly female profession, so let's have some smart employment policies); and deploying support staff, technicians and other professionals to give teachers a chance to be even better teachers, through opportunities for working together and undergoing training and development in the school day. We also propose a coherent, funded programme for support staff in every school working effectively under the guidance of teachers. Many support staff would welcome opportunities to get professional qualifications, including, for some, teacher training.
We suggest a more modern approach to a teaching career, following some of the best examples of human resources management from the private sector. Many teachers would benefit enormously from opportunities to use their expertise beyond the classroom; for example, through exchanges with other schools, engaging in research, contributing to teacher training, examination work and professional development.
At crucial stages in an individual's career, such an opportunity might provide the motivation to stay.