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The reluctant landlady

Sewing curtains is not usually a head's job - but staff shortages have forced one to turn seamstress. Karen Thornton reports

When Sue Tanner became a headteacher she did not expect to spend her time sewing curtains and furnishing a rented flat for overseas teachers.

But the difficulties of recruiting and retaining staff in an area of high-cost housing in leafy Buckinghamshire have forced her into property management.

The school has converted its former caretaker's house into a three-bedroom home for teachers and this year rented three other properties locally.

And the omission in last week's pay proposals of a significant increase in "fringe" payments to teachers in London's commuter belt has only added to her frustration. Schools in areas such as hers are suffering as staff leave for higher salaries in the capital or the lower cost of living elsewhere in the country.

Mrs Tanner, head of Chalfonts community college in Gerrards Cross, said:

"The fact we help with accommodation is the one thing that's enabled us to recruit people. But finding it takes time and it's not what I am employed to do."

She has made trips to Ikea to furnish one of the flats while her husband Paul has helped her sew curtains.

Twenty new teachers - 10 from overseas - have joined Mrs Tanner's 85-strong teaching team this year.

She says a big increase in "fringe" payments for her staff is the only way to solve her problems. "If they don't put the fringe up, it's going to be disastrous," said Mrs Tanner, whose school has 1,750-pupils.

"People come here for interview, look in estate agents' windows and almost die. We say, don't worry, we can help. But 12 miles down the road they could get at least pound;3,000 more, and they leave when they want to buy a house."

Karl Coulby, 35, has lived in the caretaker's house for more than two years. He pays around pound;200 a month plus bills compared to around pound;700 a month for a studio flat in the area.

The history and RE teacher is job-hunting in the north or East Anglia because he cannot afford to buy anywhere near the school on his salary of nearly pound;24,000.

"I was told I would be lucky to get a rabbit hutch for under pound;150,000 here," he said.

"I want my own space and to settle down. If I could afford to live around here, I would stay. It's a great school, I love the kids, but I'm being forced out because I can't afford a mortgage."

When Jayne Stiles, a 30-year-old English teacher, started at Chalfonts five years ago, she lived in the caretaker's house for a year.

Last year, she was finally able to buy her own home, 30 miles away. She said: "I couldn't have come to work in this area if the caretaker's house hadn't been available. Coming out of college with student loans, the cost of living was a primary concern. It was a prerequisite that the school could provide affordable accommodation.

"I was aware I could get a larger allowance if I went into a London school.

I did think of moving away, but the career development opportunities and the pupils are great here."

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