London calling

14th April 2000 at 01:00
SOME Great Men's quotations should be preserved in a literary pickle jar, not because they are wise, but because they are now fabulously rich in unintended irony. Churchill's claim that headteachers "have powers at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested" is a classic example.

It would be interesting to discover how many of the 1,100 heads who decided to quit during the first three months of this year (Hot Data, page 21) would endorse Winnie's remark. It is true that this surge may be partly explained by the events of 1997 when 1,300 heads nipped out of the

early-retirement door just before it slammed shut. This meant that fewer heads were in the market for a carriage clock in 1998 and 1999. But as we reported last week, form-filling, inspections, governors' meetings and funding worries - coupled with the prospect of performance-pay assessment - have taken a heavy toll.

For once there is no evidence that London has been particularly badly affected by the flood of resignations. However, research from North London University (page 3) documents the many reasons why we cannot be complacent about the capital's staffing probems. The researchers suggest that poor management is largely responsible for the haemorrhaging of teaching talent. But it would be unfair to lay the blame for London's ills on weak headteachers.

Management training would certainly help, but there are many other reasons why London schools often appoint the "best available" candidate and rely on a 2,000-strong army of supply teachers. Some of the capital's problems seem intractable (difficult pupil behaviour), and some are being addressed (old schools needing renovation). But it is now evident that the London weighting allowance must be jacked up in order to avoid a staffing crisis (rolls are expected to rise by 11 per cent between 1997 and 2005). Interest-free home loans are also needed. But as the researchers say, free travel passes may also have to be introduced, along with high-profile advertising emphasising the special rewards of working with London's children.

Of course, the recruiters could also use Samuel Johnson's famous "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" quote. But many now see that as another unintentionally sardonic comment that should be dropped in the pickle jar.

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