Anyone there with a pulse?

31st August 2001 at 01:00
The shortage of good teachers now poses a serious threat to present educational achievements, let alone any hoped-for improvements. Our survey of unfilled secondary vacancies this week suggests a 25 per cent increase on last year's record levels. But even this understates the true scale of the problem. Last year many heads were taken unawares by the shortfall. This time they knew what to expect and many have adopted more realistic - or desperate - measures. The result is that around 20 per cent of vacancies have been filled by staff rated by heads as "unsatisfactory" according to normal standards. As one head put it, if they can stand up and breathe they are appointed.

Nobody wants to talk up a crisis. Many heads refuse to compromise on quality and yet still manage to be fully staffed. And in some cases, those rated "unsatisfactory" may be more accurately simply unknown because they have been recruited by telephone from overseas, or are graduate trainees with no track record. Some may even make excellent teachers with a bit of help.

But even chief inspector Mike Tomlinson reiterated this week the warning he had made in his annual report that, without urgent action to improve recruitment, progress in schools would be reversed. The emptiness of the Government's response - that there are more teachers in schools and that trainee numbers are rising - is underlined by the chief inspector's shocking revelation that 40 per cent of new recruits disappear after just three years in the profession and headteachers' estimates that one in five appointees is not up to scratch. Remember the fuss when Mr Tomlinson's predecessor claimed that a mere one in 25 teachers was unsatisfactory? Those were the days.

The Government's principal recruitment and retention weapon - greater flexibility over teachers' pay - is, if anything, making the scramble for staff worse. It is increasing the churn in the system as teachers realise the benefits of a seller's market. The resulting auction is forcing recruiters to adopt increasingly aggressive and unprincipled measures to beg, bribe and steal staff from each other.

Recruitment has become a nightmare version of musical chairs in which the players are progressively removed rather than the seats. As the music stops this September, the winners are the better-funded, more attractive schools in areas of cheaper housing. The losers will be those unable to afford recruitment incentives and the more challenging schools most in need of stable staffing but forced to make do with whatever supply teachers can be found or with untrained or overseas teachers.

All of which puts even more pressure on permanent staff that do hang on. Thank Heavens many do. But for how long? With more than 45 per cent of teachers over 45 - many of them able to cash in on increased property prices to fund early retirement - and 15,000 more teachers needed to keep pace with secondary pupil numbers, the situation could get still worse.

Teacher supply is unequivocally the responsibility of the Government. It needs to do more to keep people in the profession rather than driving them out. Money is important, particularly when teachers have loans to repay and mortgages and families to start, but it is not everything, and anyway commercial competitors will always outbid the public sector. So the profession has to compete also on status and job satisfaction. That means respect for teacher professionalism, respite from the inexorable bureaucracy and a more sustainable quality of life. Cue the workload inquiry.

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