Misplaced complacency

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
THE still freshly-minted schools minister, Stephen Timms, may have been correct when he said teacher vacancies next term will be at similar levels to last September. But suggesting this was satisfactory did make him sound complacent.

Headteachers report that the supply of good teachers is even worse this year. Because they now recognise that the situation is dire, many have been forced to accept candidates they would never have considered before. So even if the number of vacancies ends up no greater than the 4,000 the TES survey suggested in secondary schools last September, this still means the shortage of good teachers is growing. Gaps are being filled by unqualified and overseas teachers. Some of these may be excellent. Some, however, are unfamiliar with our curriculum, unproven, and may even have been appointed unseen.

If the line has been held at last year's level, it is due to the efforts, resourcefulness and desperation of headteachers rather than anything the Government has done to make the profession more attractive. The minister should have acknowledged headteachers' supreme efforts rather than venture the unwise (some might say foolish) prediction that no child will be sent home in September.

Even if the number of vacancies remains the same, reserves of energy, goodwill and willingness to cover are at a much lower ebb. So are the numbers of temporary supply teachers. Some headteachers already clearly expect to be forced to provide part-time schooling.

The picture is not uniformly bleak. Schools fortunate enough to appoint newly qualified teachers report the quality is as good as, or better than, ever. And there are 3,370 (17.5 per cent) more applicants for secondary training this year. But these need to be set against the 15,000 extra teachers that will be needed for additional secondary pupils and the 40 per cent dropping out within five years of training. Then there is the accelerating rate at which teachers will leave as the bulk of the profession approaches the 50-plus retirement zone.

Things will get far worse unless ministers recognise the need to retain existing teachers rather than drive them out. Much depends on the current review of teachers' hours and workload. Even more rests on the Government's response to it.

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