Crisis, what crisis?

26th September 1997 at 01:00
There is more than one way to spread fear and dismay while intending the opposite. The histrionic "Don't panic! Don't panic!" of Dads' Army's Corporal Jones is one. The Department for Education and Employment's evidence to the teachers' pay review body, with its "Crisis? What crisis?" tone, is another. No doubt it is meant to have the calming, service-as-normal effect; like the orchestra on the Titanic, playing on even as the deck begins to tilt. Viewed with just a modicum of foresight, however, it smacks of complacency.

True, there is not a crisis in teacher recruitment - yet. But crucial teacher training courses are failing to meet even the reduced targets set by the last government. The TESBrunel University survey earlier this month showed there are already shortages of the specialist teachers most likely to find alternative employment outside teaching as the economy improves; shortages particularly pronounced in the inner city areas where the Government most needs to improve staffing if it is to achieve its targets for higher standards. With a further 9 per cent growth in secondary pupil numbers, the department should at least be giving the impression it is aware that there are icebergs ahead.

The main plank of its case that teachers do not warrant a generous salary hike is that their pay is better than the average for non-manual employees and that local authorities cannot afford to pay more. Comparing the all-graduate profession with the generality of non-manual workers is an insult calculated to deter able recruits. And clearly those with experience of recruiting graduates to industry do not share the department's sanguine analysis (page 1).

If the DFEE is serious about ensuring a continuous supply of able teachers - and that, after all, is one of its central functions - the department, or its Teacher Training Agency, should undertake a proper comparison of the starting salaries and longer term prospects of teaching and competing graduate employment opportunities. Would-be teachers are bound to weigh up their financial futures far more carefully now that they may enter employment bearing a legacy of debt from their university education and graduate training.

It does not automatically follow, of course, that a salary rise is the best way to fend off impending teacher shortages. Wastage from the profession, and enthusiasm to join it, probably depend just as much upon working conditions and the anticipated job-satisfaction. The "key issues" here according to the DFEE are currently workloads, pupil behaviour and discipline and "education policy questions". Teachers may be relieved to hear that the "Government is addressing all these issues"; but incredulity is a more likely response.

For what this leaves out is the corrosive cynicism engendered by the helterskelter of reforms and the incessant criticism of the past decade; the loss of public confidence in schools and of self-esteem among teachers; and the fact that the profession no longer enjoys the respect, security or autonomy that might once have compensated for the modest salary.

It is not just that teachers have seen their classes get bigger and their non-contact time diminish; they have at the same time been told what to teach and, increasingly, how to teach it. Rising expectations have run far in advance of the support they were entitled to expect and the conscientious achieving miracles against the odds have been rewarded with unfair league tables comparing unlike with unlike.

Those in positions of responsibility have had the manifold tasks of local management and the demands of personal accountability added to their curriculum leadership functions only to find, in many cases, that cuts in funding have restricted management options and further added to stress.

It remains to be seen how far the extra Pounds 1 billion for schools already agreed by the Government will stretch, or whether it will reach down into schools at all. The Government says it must not be spent on raising teachers' pay but on books and buildings and improving teaching, though Pounds 100 million extra is already committed to pay for that part of last year's teacher pay award that was deferred.

Smaller classes, increased teacher support and better materials will help to increase the attractions of teaching. But the fundamental need will remain: for teachers to win back public confidence and rediscover a justifiable pride in the job by demonstrating that they are indeed meeting the needs of all children.

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