A 12,000-mile African odyssey brought head Stuart Newton seven precious recruits. Now he calls on ministers to allow other talented overseas teachers easier access to jobs in British schools.
Once we recruited only teachers who were demonstrably excellent classroom practitioners, and who could make learning exciting for young people. Now, the key criterion seems to be the possession of a pulse. When that is satisfied, the only questions to ask are: "When can you start?" and "How much do you want?" Do you remember the old days, when the initials stood for Times Educational Supplement, and it was read as much for its articles as its job opportunities? TES, now, of course, means Trawling for an Extinct Species. The paper helps enormously in the redistribution of a dwindling workforce, but may now need to diversify and help the Teacher Training Agency because of its lamentable failure to predict staffing needs, and recruit the people who will enhance the learning of our pupils.
Which brings me to the coelacanth. This, as you probably know, is a fish known only as a fossil until some living specimens were found in the 1930s, off the coast of southern Africa. The good news is that, like the coelacanth, new recruits to teaching are not totally extinct. In fact, southern Africa is a rich source of talent.
Two weeks ago I visited South Africa to trawl for teachers. I interviewed 18 people (for the seven vacancies that we have for English, maths and science teachers in September), and filled all posts with teachers who have the sort of experience and commitment that we need.
Travelling 6,000 miles to recruit teachers seems a bit drastic but it looks to have paid off. Then again, who knows? We are not home and dry yet. Suppose the visas are not issued?... Suppose the planes are full?... Supposing the available accommodation is too expensive?... Suppose there are major adjustment problems?... Suppose they struggle with our curriculum and teaching methods?... I shall not feel even remotely secure about our new recruits until they turn up on September 4. I shall not feel comfortable until we arrive at half-term.
Some of the teachers that I have recruited have experienced situations far more difficult than anything that we have had to deal with.
Some schools in South Africa face warfare between armed gangs. There are, of course, huge problems with drugs. Also, classes in many South African high schools are enormous, with 50 or more pupils of all abilities and, too often, seriously inadequate resources to do the job.
These teachers may be able to offer something extra, something that British society, as a whole, has failed to do - namely to instil into a significant minority of pupils the importance of education as a passport to self-improvement. Perhaps those who have experienced at first hand the liberating effect of education will succeed with these young people where we have failed.
The good news is that there are plenty of teachers in South Africa looking for a change. There are about 10,000 people who qualified as teachers at the end of the last academic year who are still looking for a post. So, why aren't we recruiting some of them?
I would suggest the following action needs to be taken: 1. Serious talks between our ministers and those of any country that has a surplus of trained teachers. We should be offering work permits to those who wish to start (or develop) their careers in British schools.
2. We should send a team of recruiters to interview the serious candidates, and appoint the outstanding ones.
3. We should simplify and accelerate the procedures for obtaining visas and work permits. In South Africa, a potential recruit would have to be very determined, and well off, to afford the flight to Pretoria to obtain a visa as well as the flight to the UK.
4. We should consider giving subsidised air fares to enable successful teachers to travel to the UK, and provide subsidised accommodation in the first month of their stay.
5. We should provide two weeks of intensive training (on full pay) before any of the recruits start their jobs.
The above might cost as much as pound;5,000 per teacher. Recruiting 1,000 teachers might cost as much as pound;5 million. It will mean a number of Government departments co-ordinating their activities. Such action would also have to be taken quickly if we are to fill the vacancies for the next academic year. Incidentally, these vacancies show the serious errors that were made a few years ago in forecasting our future need for qualified teachers.
Doing this will not be easy, but if we do not find a solution to the staff shortage then, as usual, the losers will be the children and existing teachers, who will be blamed for poor results.
An ambitious project to recruit overseas teachers for our schools may be the single most important thing that the Department for Education and Skills can do to raise standards in our schools (or at least, not to let them drop again). The fallback position to prevent a four-day week would be to close down the DFES, LEAs, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and OFSTED and put those people back into classrooms ...
We will now see whether DFES stands for the Department For Enrolling Superteachers, or the Department for Four-day-week Education in Schools. This, clearly, is a Dilemma for Estelle to Solve.
The author is head of Selsdon high school, Croydon Next week: Monica Else on how 16-year-olds could help solve the shortage crisis