Stark warning on lack of subject specialists in secondaries. John Walshe reports
Serious shortages of teachers and worries about their quality threaten many countries' attempts to reform schooling, education ministers and officials from 30 developed countries were told last week.
Principals are having a tough job recruiting teachers in computer science, maths, technology, foreign languages, and sciences, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which hosted the meeting in Dublin.
The conference, which was attended by UK school standards minister David Miliband, examined the issues of student assessements, standards reporting and teacher recruitment. The theme was "Raising the quality of learning for all".
Research shows that in half of the OECD countries a majority of 15-year-olds attend schools where principals believe that learning is hindered by a lack of teachers.
This shortage is set to become worse as the teaching population ages. On average, three out of 10 secondary teachers are in their 50s in OECD countries. This figure rises to almost five out of 10 in Germany and Italy.
Improving pay is one obvious way to tackle shortages. But in 14 out of 19 OECD countries the salary of a lower secondary teacher with 15 years'
experience grew more slowly than gross national product between 1994 and 2001.
Higher-paid jobs in industry are a great temptation to graduates in technology, languages and maths.
Phil McKenzie from the OECD's education and training policy division said that countries were responding on the pay front in different ways. Some concentrated increases in the early years of teachers' careers. Others offered scholarships to take up maths and science teaching. In Australia, the government pays half the salary of a teacher going on secondment into industry while Sweden has introduced individualised salaries which allow teachers in specialist subjects to negotiate attractive packages.
Mr McKenzie listed other responses which were making a difference, suggesting that teacher shortages are not irreversible, but can be cyclical, resulting in surpluses in a few years.
"Governments need to respond in an aggressive manner to what the markets require," he added.
Making teacher training more flexible by opening up part-time and distance-learning routes into the profession was one response.
Bringing people from different backgrounds into teaching was another. In Sweden people with a military background have been sponsored to retrain as teachers.
"Bringing people from other professions into teaching helps current shortages and changes the skills mix in schools. It can be beneficial to have people from backgrounds outside education."
Governments, he said, must also tackle issues relating to professional status and job satisfaction.