As I sit in my office once again pondering the low response to yet another advertisement for a teacher, my mind wanders to two recent experiences.
The first was a conversation with a colleague in another school who told me they were processing more than 200 applications for a handful of teaching jobs. "How can this be?" I asked, followed by a request for them to send me one of their ads. "I'd love to know how you do it." She said the ads were similar, but they had a secret weapon: they were in an inner-London weighting area.
The second event happened when we were examining our GCSE results and comparing them to our neighbouring schools. The DfES performance website allowed me to type in our postcode, then a mileage radius, so I could see the results of all the schools that lie within three miles of us. There it was: less than three miles away is a school paying the inner-London allowance. We pay the fringe allowance.
I know there is a great need for London allowances and I know there have to be boundaries, but to be less than three miles from the inner-London allowance area is a bit too much to bear.
We have long accepted that we are only 500 metres from the outer-London allowance in our corner of Surrey, but this came as a shock. Is it any wonder that schools in this area, with its high housing costs, find it difficult to attract staff when you can get more than pound;2,000 more for the same job less than three miles down the road? Why be a head of department here when you can earn more with less responsibility a short bus ride away?
There is a myth that the inner-London allowance is paid to those working in the old Ilea area. It is not; it is paid to those working in any London borough that is surrounded by other London boroughs. The London borough of Merton qualifies, thanks to a tiny strip of Sutton that prevents its boundary meeting Surrey's. So here we are competing for staff with schools within three miles that can offer fringe at pound;870, outer at pound;2,043 or inner at more than pound;3,000.
To make matters worse, I drew a circle with its centre in Westminster, and Epsom and Ewell high school on the circumference, and found that some inner-London allowance schools and many outer-London allowance schools are further out than we are. I think we are the nearest "fringe" secondary school to any school paying the inner allowance, but I am sure some of my nearby primary colleagues are closer still.
Why can't there be an allowance system based on radial distance from central London; perhaps with more bands but with the financial steps between them less marked? At least the playing field would be a little less uneven.
Phil Hutchinson is head of Epsom and Ewell high school, Surrey