Blunkett fights shy of C-word

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
Whatever you do, don't try to tell the Education Secretary the staff shortage is a 'crisis'. Warwick Mansell opens a three-page report.

DAVID Blunkett refuses to call it a crisis - but heads across the country are telling The TES that the teacher shortage is seriously threatening pupils' education.

The Education Secretary said the vacancy situation, which he admitted was a serious problem, could not be compared with some of the other difficulties the Government has faced in recent months.

He said: "The word 'crisis' is the kind of word you use when you have foot and mouth disease destroying an industry. It is not a word you use when you want to resolve a problem by recruiting or bringing back more professionals ."

This, of course, was a prelude to an attack on the language and tactics of the unions - the largest two of whom this week announced that hundreds of schools may have to send pupils home this spring because their members would refuse to cover for absent colleagues.

There is no doubt that the spectre of widespread school closures in the run-up to a general election is not an ideal prospect for Mr Blunkett and the Government.

But the Education Secretary - speaking to The TES on the day the unions announced that members in London and Doncaster had voted for no-cover action - implied that, not only was it irresponsible to threaten action that could result in pupils being sent home, but that the very language the unions were using was wrong, and counter-productive.

Telling the public that the profession was in "crisis" could only add to recruitment and retention difficulties. He said: "I've said all along that there's a problem. But how do you recruit people into a profession which declares itself to be in crisis? <> "If (critics of the Government) want to hear me say 'crisis' and say to people 'please enter a profession in crisis', they have got to ask themselves will that help or hinder?" Though acknowledging that the vacancies problem was serious, he said this resulted partly from the Government's generosity. Heads had been given more money to recruit, which had put more demands on a finite pool of available staff.

He claimed that ministers had adopted all the measures their critics had proposed to tackle the current difficulties. Recent initiatives such as pound;6,000 training salaries helped raise PGCE enrolments by 2,066 this year.

The Government was also now addressing the issue of retaining existing teachers as well as recruiting new ones. Above-inflation pay increases and performance "threshold" payments had helped here.

But in the short-term, he said, until new recruits arrived in schools in September, the only way to tackle the shortfall was to persuade retired teachers to return to the classroom.

The DFEE recently wrote to 25,000 retired teachers encouraging them to return to the classroom. Many teachers argue that the best way of persuading them to stay would be to reduce their workload. Mr Blunkett said the Government was taking measures to reduce administration and data collection demands on schools.

But this could only go so far. The Government would not, he implied, follow the Scottish example and propose a 35-hour week for teachers.

Teachers, he said, wanted to be treated as professionals. But other professions did not have a limit on their working week. "We believe that we need to lessen the pressures (on teachers). But we cannot do it by having a rigid 35-hour week, which does not apply to other professions."

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