Give us joy, not cheap hammers

9th February 2001 at 00:00
A few years ago I wrote two letters to the Department for Education, as it then was, saying that we were heading for an almighty shortage of teachers. It is worth reproducing parts of these letters.

"When graduate employment prospects improve, the loss of recruits at the first stage, and teachers in their 20s at the next stage, will be considerable.

"The increase in early retirements at the other end of the teaching profession compounds the problem . . . All these circumstances conspire together to make for a national recruitment disaster . . . I hope some action can be taken to avoid this catastrophe".

I do not blame the poor beggar who penned the classic civil servant reply. Alarmist letters must arrive by the sackload. The response shows that the impending recruitment crisis was being underestimated.

"I accept the validity of what you say; and we are not by any means complacent about teacher supply. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons I think you paint far too bleak a picture . . . present indications are far from discouraging . . . We continue to monitor the teacher supply position closely . . . while recognising that your arguments have force, we do not believe they point to imminent catastrophe".

In other words: don't worry your head about it, there is no crisis, we keep an eye on these things and if there were one we would soon be on to it. Well there is, and they're not.

Most of the "solutions" being put forward address symptoms, not causes. I welcomed The TES report about the schools that help teachers buy cheap DIY gear, as every little helps, but whether 10 per cent off a hammer will induce reluctant graduates to take up teaching as a career is open to speculation.

"Do you fancy teaching as a career?"

"Nah, count me out".

"You can buy a hammer cheap".

"Get away. What about nails though?"

"Only 20p a packet".

"What? I'll have some of that. Where do I sign up? For cheap nails I'll willingly stay up half the night preparing lessons, marking books, filling in forms, being abusd in the press, and having a nervous breakdown when the school's inspected. Only 20p a packet, you say? What size would that be . .?"

The root cause of the recruitment problem is that the job is no longer seen by many young people as the kind of career they seek. Teaching normally appeals to young people's idealism. It offers a chance to make a vital contribution to the continuation of the planet itself. What could be more important?

It is not so much acquiring the art and performing the act of teaching that puts them off, but what goes with it: the abuse, scapegoating, vilification, and the complete lack of trust that has spawned endless bureaucracy, detailed prescription and formulaic inspection.

Symptom treating is not even a very good short-term remedy.

Unless the underlying causes of cracks in a structure are treated, little fissures become big ones and eventually the whole edifice crumbles. Nothing short of improving teaching as a job will improve recruitment.

It is even worse to waste money on palliatives that are doomed to fail, but give the false impression that they offer a solution:"Oh dear, my brakes don't seem to be working. I think I'll put a new rubber cover on the foot pedal".

The ironically termed "Canteach" web initiative (shouldn't that read ""?), is doomed, as are all the other gimmicks. People never forget the good teacher they had umpteen years ago because that lucky beggar was not hounded and could concentrate on the job.

Slogans are useless: "All the free chalk you need"; "Your very own blackboard duster"; "Discount elbow patches"; "Cut-price servicing on all B-reg Escorts"; "Hush Puppies reshod cheap"; "More boxes than the back of Tesco"; "Help the nation, ring an Australian".

What is the point? A happier teaching force might not solve the recruitment crisis, but it would certainly be a living reminder to the next generation of the rewarding nature of what should be the finest of professions. A bit of joy beats cheap hammers every time.

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