Carrot or banana?;Leading Article

24th September 1999 at 01:00
WELL, IS the Government's latest teacher-recruitment wheeze - the fast-track scheme for the brightest and the best - really "a banana skin short of bonkers"?

It could be argued that some other recent recruitment strategies matched that description better. Asking John Cleese to commend teaching to the nation was a somewhat desperate tactic. And inviting the retreating Hong Kong garrison to march into schools - as the Teacher Training Agency once did - was stranger still.

By comparison the fast-track scheme, which will offer pound;5,000 "golden hellos" and bigger salary increments not only to gilded youths but more experienced teachers, seems rather well considered.

The success of the bursary scheme for prospective maths and science teachers demonstrates that some students will bite on such "carrots". The Government is also entitled to claim that the fast-track places will be evenly distributed. Critics will contend that secondaries and special schools need all the fast-track funding, as they are the sectors experiencing staff shortages. But by including primary schools in the scheme the Government is demonstrating that they deserve the very best teachers, too.

However, Nigel de Gruchy, who tossed the banana skin quote to the media, is right to say that it will be difficult to pick out future classroom stars before they have even started their training. Furthermore, the scheme will inevitably intensify the debate over performance-related pay, risking further staffroom jealousies and divisions.

But it is important to retain a sense of proportion. The Government envisages that only a few hundred exceptional individuals will be selected initially and no more than 5 per cent of teachers will ever be fast-tracked. This is therefore a palliative rather than a radical remedy for schools' staffing problems - although it may raise the profile of the profession among high-flying graduates.

If the Government really wants to address the shortages it must consider other, more ambitious recruitment and retention options. It is true that many teachers see the opportunity to work with children as the job's most important "selling point" (Research Focus, page 31). But the vacancy figures for the most challenging areas show that there is a limited supply of altruism. Training salaries for postgraduate certificate in education students, bigger London allowances, sabbaticals, travel opportunities and reductions in workload would help to persuade waverers that teaching really is as good a job as ministers say it is.

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