Policy with delusions of adequacy

18th May 2001 at 01:00
There seem to be more jobs supplements in The TES at the moment than there are applicants for many of the vacant posts. Anyone who actually gets to an interview clearly has the cardiovascular system of an ox, being strong enough to lift a ton of paper, with the persistence to stick at reading through hundreds of pages of fine print, and the intelligence to tell a maths post from a lollipop vacancy.

Don't bother with the interview. Just give them the job for still being alive.

It is a return on a grand scale to when I started teaching in the 1960s. At that time, local authorities sent chauffeur-driven limousines to anyone clutching a teaching certificate, a stick of chalk and not actually on a life-support machine - although this last criterion was sometimes waived.

Many of the people hired at that time were brilliant exponents of the art of teaching, imaginative, committed, salt of the earth, the backbone of their school for many years to come. Some, unfortunately, were bozos, signed up by desperate heads with unfilled vacancies.

I once got a phone call in the 1970s from a head about someone for whom I was referee. It went something like this: "Hello. I'm the head of Swinesville Academy and I have an application for a modern languages post here from a Mr Periwinkle. He's put you down as a referee."

"Ah yes, Godfrey Periwinkle. I've made it clear to him that I can't really support his application, but he insisted on putting my name down as a referee."

"Can't support him? Why's that?" "Well, he works at one of our local schools and he speaks German with the accent of a drunken British army colonel, a sort of whining drawl, bears no resemblance to the real thing. His grasp of grammar is tenuous, about that of the average F-streamer, since he got into university on the strength of his cricket, and was given a sporting third. He's pleasant enough though, but rather dim."

"Look, I'll be honest with you. I'm absolutely bloody desperate. We've got 27 unfilled vacancies at the moment. Has he got two heads?" Itwould be awful if we hired barely competent people now, simply because there is a shortage, and then had to watch the problems compound themselves over the next 20 years. Half the teaching profession will be over the age of 50 in the year 2006. We shall have to find some 200,000 replacements over the next decade.

There is another problem. It is getting increasingly difficult for heads to obtain honest references. Data protection legislation quite rightly tries to prevent people being done down unfairly, or without their knowledge, but schools need honest information about applicants.

Think of those classic phrases from references that will now probably slide away into illegality. "Out of his depth in a puddle" comes from one list, alongside, "sets low standards and then fails to achieve them" and, "depriving some village of an idiot".

Other gems include the genetic:"got into the gene pool when the lifeguard wasn't looking"; "it's hard to believe that he beat a million other sperm"; or the damning, "wheel turning, hamster dead", and, "if you offered her a penny for her thoughts you'd get change."

My own favourite reference phrase sums up government policy towards professional public servants - such as doctors, nurses, the police service, teachers - ever since Margaret Thatcher stigmatised them as self-interest groups working against society. The phrase is: "has delusions of adequacy".

I find it sad that we have thousands of young people with all the qualities one looks for in a new teacher who say they have no intention of even considering the profession.

Many teachers now tell how their own children are totally switched off teaching, having seen what it did to their parents. If respect and trust do not return we have no chance of recruiting 200,000 newcomers of the highest quality in the coming decade.

The next government should produce a constructive paper entitled "Working with the Professions" as a blueprint for the future. It could be a most important milestone. But will it ever happen?

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