No substitute for better pay

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
In another open letter to the Prime Minister, Jenny Owl warns that quick-fix solutions will do nothing to ease the teaching crisis.

Dear Tony Blair

"Those who can, leave," declared one newspaper recently, referring to the exodus of experienced teachers. In December, school standards minister Estelle Morris had told us that there had never been a better time to be a teacher.

While the truth is between the two, the omens are not good, although there is still some hope. A TES poll (January 12) reports that two-thirds of teachers surveyed are satisfied with their job. I am one of them. This is not because I work in a "successful" secondary school, but because I previously worked in "unsuccessful" ones: schools in which, according to your Government's neat definition, fewer than 25 per cent of pupils achieve five or more GCSE grades A* to C.

When you and your ministers describe a school as "successful", you fail to point out that many are also successful at keeping out difficult pupils, whether through carefully-worded admissions policy, unashamed selection procedures, or sheer, cold-blooded determination.

Ultimately, a teacher's ability to teach depends on the pupils in front of him or her. When I left my difficult inner-city school for a selective one, I wrongly believed I would be difficult to replace. Candidates, not many, I admit, were queuing to take my place. Because, while I euphemistically thought of my previous school as "difficult", I forgot that there is a whole swathe of schools that are, quite simply, impossible to teach in.

Teachers in these schools are desperate to get their foot in the door of an "easier" establishment.

Alas, for many, the honeymoon is shortlived once they realise that their new school was a haven of calm only on the day of their interview (Year 11 was on GCSE study leave, Year 10 was on work experience, and Years 8 and 9 were at Alton Towers).

Mike Davies, former head of the Fresh Start school, Telegraph Hill in south-east London, has said: "What a funny society we have that puts the most vulnerable young people into the most dysfunctional environment that could possibly be imagined" (TES, December 1).

He was referring to the chaotic conditions under which he and his staff had been expected to work miracles with children whose social and educational needs were enormous. Will a few thousand extra for a few teachers in a few shortage subjects (TES, January 5) rally make it easier to retain and recruit top staff? Especially when the money is conditional on far more frequent inspections? No number of inspections will improve a school if it is propped up by inexperienced teachers and supply staff who dread going into work.

How about an imaginary, extreme example? If you doubled the salaries of staff in difficult (and impossible) schools, and halved their class sizes, do you think the schools might find it easier to retain and recruit top staff? I refer to the "particularly good staff" cited by Phil Taylor, head of - as Radio 4 put it - a Manchester school "in challenging circumstances".

Once such staff leave there is no one left who can step into the breach. Now that you have quoted from TV game shows in the House of Commons, you will forgive me for referring to an Elvis Presley song, "In The Ghetto". The song's simple message is that deprivation breeds deprivation. "Are we too blind to see?" asks Elvis - to see that the only hope of breaking such vicious circles does not lie in quick-fix solutions of a few thousand pounds here and there?

The historian Eric Hobsbawm has complained that your speeches carefully avoid any kind of intellectual content. According to the 17th British Social Attitudes report (November 1999), 85 per cent of Labour voters want the Government to spend more. They clearly understand that however expensive it might be in the medium term to staff schools - especially difficult ones - with a full complement of experienced teachers, in the long term, it will be more expensive not to.

If you are really determined to solve the recruitment crisis once and for all, heed the words of Carmel Fitzsimons, a journalist who recently qualified as a primary teacher but will not be joining the ranks of our NQTs (The Guardian, January 9). "What I discovered is that the job itself is the root of the teacher shortage. You can train as many teachers as you like but once they have taken a good hard look at what it involves, few will go for it."

You see, Tony, only saints plump for vocations. vocations do not pay mortgages, and being a saint is no qualification for teaching children who do not want to be taught. Only major improvements to pay and conditions will give the teaching profession the remotest chance of being "the most prestigious in the country" as you claim you wish it to become.

Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The author is a head of department

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