Our selfish genes;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
A never-ending flow of survey findings pours out of the media - and most are forgotten almost as soon as they are read. The average cost of houses in London, Luton and Llandudno; the public's views on the Millennium Dome; and the football grounds with the tastiest meat pies. But the findings of one survey this week (page 4) should splash us awake: British schoolchildren are the most materialistic, selfish and hedonistic in Europe.

Now it is one thing for a parent to call a child selfish. Who hasn't? But to have that confirmed by a 10-country survey involving 10,000 youngsters aged six to 16 is rather depressing. The study, conducted for the Summit on Television for Children in London, found that 34 per cent of young Britons believed that "getting rich" was the most important life objective, compared with only 11 per cent of Swedes.

Perhaps that helps to explain the results of a second survey by the Teacher Training Agency which found that only 39 per cent of 16 to 19-year-old girls and a mere 9 per cent of young men would consider a career in teaching. Sixth-formers know that the teacher is still likely to be the person "in the woolly sweater and battered sedan and the grimy house at the corner of the street" - to use the immortal words of John Major. And they don't envy the lifestyle of a teacher - particularly one who works in a secondary school - even though half of them say that teaching is a highly-respected career.

Young graduates feel much the same way. One Institute for Employment Studies study discovered that a 1 per cent fall in relative starting salaries led to a 4 per cent cut in the supply of graduates to teaching.

Of course, it can be argued that instead of raising salaries it would be better to inculcate less materialistic values in children or simply recruit more public-spirited mature people who want teaching jobs but can't get them (page 20). But combating selfishness and ageism are long-term goals. In the short-term, the teacher-training colleges face an increasingly one-sided battle with commerce and industry for the best young graduates. Companies are planning to recruit 17 per cent more graduates this summer and a huge range of golden hellos and interest-free loans will be proffered.

An above-average teacher's pay rise for 1998 would have given the colleges a better chance of recruiting the bright young things who have one eye on their bank balance. But it would also have served a much more significant purpose; it would have demonstrated that the Blair Government really does believe that education is the number-one priority.

That would have sent out important messages not only to serving teachers and students but to parents, who play a key role in determining which career path their children follow. But obviously it would be naive to believe that pay rises alone can solve teacher-recruitment problems. They will never be big enough to cure all ills because a country as small as Britain can never afford to be too generous to 500,000 teachers.

The sixth-formers' survey provides further evidence that able young people will be more likely to consider teaching if the job is seen to become easier. They believe - just as the unions do - that stress levels are too high and teachers have to deal with too many unruly pupils.

Clearly the Government is now giving serious consideration to schools' indiscipline problems - pound;59 million is being spent on excluded pupils and another pound;22m on disaffected children (page 4). But teachers' workloads look as unattractive as ever and no one should be surprised if union members vote for a paperwork boycott (page 22). The depth of frustration is as deep as any well.

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