A priceless profession;Platform;Briefing;Opinion

25th December 1998 at 00:00
The lure of teaching is vocational not financial, says Elizabeth Hoodless, director of Community Service Volunteers. Give undergraduates a "taste" of the classroom and they'll be hooked.

I do not know Bill Goldsmith, but if he is reading this I would like to thank him. He is assistant head of sixth form at Chiswick Community College in West London so it is reasonable to assume that if he misses this piece, a colleague will bring it to his attention.

Mr Goldsmith was quoted in The Times the day after David Blunkett unveiled his plan for a "fast-track" scheme for high-flying trainee teachers. They will be given the chance to leap from a starting salary of pound;15,000 to pound;22,500 within four years - compared with a current timescale of up to seven years.

To be honest, I do not know of anyone outside the Treasury who does not believe teachers should earn more. But that said, I remain unconvinced that fast tracking is the answer to the chronic recruitment crisis. Teachers have never entered the profession to get rich, and I doubt they ever will. This is the point that Mr Goldsmith made: "Many of my friends were going into law and the City. The money those careers offer is not comparable with any plans the Government may be making. I entered teaching as a vocation and a different pay structure would not have tempted me more."

The niece of a colleague graduated with first-class honours last year. She was tempted to teach but instead opted for a big City firm. She started at pound;25,000 and confidently expects to be on at least pound;75,000 within two years. Offering her a few thousand more to go into the classroom would not have made one iota of difference. Mr Goldsmith is right. Teaching is a vocation and we should not be embarrassed to say so. It is something to be proud of.

For some years now Community Service Volunteers, the charity I work for, has been getting undergraduates into schools to work as volunteers alongside teachers. In 1989 we had a handful of schools taking part. Nearly 10 years on, the growth has been astonishing. This year, about 7,000 students, from 200 colleges have helped in 1,000 schools, giving half a day per week.

The evaluation and publicity surrounding this work has, understandably, concentrated on the benefits to pupils, teachers and, to a lesser extent, volunteers. Several research projects have shown the educational gains to be made. But I think there is another aspect that we haven't explored. I am convinced that by providing young people (well, most of them are young) with a "taster" of life from the other side of the classroom, we increase the likelihood that they will decide teaching is for them. I have no hard data - if there are any educational researchers looking for a project, I would be delighted to work with them - but a mass of personal testimonies from volunteers who have told me that it was the volunteer experience that convinced them to become teachers.

It must be the case that men and women who have experienced first hand the reality of working with children are more likely to apply for a job after obtaining a PGCE than those whose first contact with pupils is on teaching practice. We all know that a proportion of student teachers are doing it because they are not sure what to do next. But those with volunteer experience already know it is what they want to do. And some volunteers will decide it really is the job from hell and not waste thousands of pounds of tax payers' money training for a job they do not want.

Sadly, every year we train thousands of teachers who promptly decide to do something else. In 1996, 27,980 people qualified, but nearly 10,000 of them decided not to take a teaching job. It is a shocking statistic and I do not dare translate it into money wasted. Let me make it clear that I am not advocating some cheap-labour job-substitution scheme. All volunteers are prepared in advance and work alongside a teacher. Of course there are some costs but they are minimal.

In the United States, school-based volunteering is enormously popular and in recent years teaching has become the most popular profession with a staggering 10% of new graduates opting for it.

New Labour is keen on targets, so my suggestion to Mr Blunkett is simple: let us have a national strategy with every school given a target for the number of volunteers they need to recruit. It is cost effective and it works.

A pupil at Elisabeth Garret Anderson school near my office in London's King's Cross, was tutored by a City University physics student. He made a lasting impression on her. After a few weeks with him she decided she wanted to follow his lead and go to university. Imagine how that young man felt when I told him what she had said. He knew then that teaching was for him.

Elizabeth Hoodless is executive director of Community Service Volunteers

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