Recruitment needs more than sweetners

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Remember those history book stories about the man with the horse and cart who went round the streets during the plague ringing a bell and shouting "Bring out your dead"?

As the teacher recruitment crisis balloons at an alarming rate, I propose that he and his horse be brought back under a job creation scheme. Before long anyone not actually on a life-support machine, and indeed a few who are, will have to be wheeled out.

Some recruitment wizard is no doubt planning to disinter a few deceased schoolies, drape them in gown and mortarboard (that should please traditionalists), prop them up on a frame in front of a class and switch on a video. The key question in interviews for teaching posts will soon be: "Has the candidate got a pulse?" There have been several interesting news stories about the growing scarcity of teachers. One item said that, as the shortage of applicants for vacancies grows, some teachers are hand-picking the schools to which they apply. Another newspaper account reported that millions of pounds will be spent to improve teachers' image, in order to find new recruits.

The shortages have been exacerbated by the exodus of teachers in their fifties who quit earlier this year, just as the axe fell on early-retirement schemes. Before long they will, no doubt, be invited to return.

No one should claim to be surprised by the crisis. The problem has been building up for all to see.

When I wrote to the Department for Education and Employment some time back, pointing out that circumstances would soon produce the worst teacher shortage in recent memory, I received a soothing reply. The gist of it was: there is no impending crisis, but thanks for writing. Good doggie. Pat, pat. Here's a biscuit. Now bog off back to your kennel. Well, "Woof, woof" is all I can say.

The roof would have fallen in earlier but for the "No vacancies" solution. When teachers left and were not replaced, class sizes simply grew. If a maths teacher left and there was no money for a replacement, or no one suitable applied, then some poor beggar, if necessary a historian with an abacus, was stuck in front of a maths class and told to get on with it. One way or another the "vacancy" became a phantom.

My heart always sinks when I hear the "improve the image" solution. The idea of spreading a thin layer of glistening, but opaque slime over something in order to conceal the harsh reality underneath has been in vogue ever since Kenneth Baker made "slimatology" respectable. Unfortunately, it addresses symptoms instead of causes.

Expensive newspaper advertisements, presumably written in estate agent English, are a waste of money - "Wanted. Desirable, much sought after candidates to teach tastefully appointed, select bijou reception class pupils". Nor does there seem to be much attraction in direct exhortation through cinema and television adverts - "Come and teach, you bastards". Can't see it working.

Teaching is one of the most important jobs in our society. It took thousands of generations to discover that water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. A teacher can transmit the information to the next generation in seconds. Without teachers, society would slide irrevocably back into primitive squalor.

There would have been no need to resort to "slimatology" had teachers not been hammered so hard during the past few years. The job is intrinsically interesting and rewarding. Many of the best young people of their generation know that and are attracted by the profession. They would be happy to join it, if only the conditions and climate were better.

Small wonder that some teachers, basking in their scarcity, are reported to be hand-picking their next job. Armed with league tables and other school data, these smart operators are said to be giving interviewing committees a hard time. I can just picture the scene.

"Ah, come in, Mr Jenkins. Do sit down. I'm the chairman of governors and we'd like to ask you a few questions about your application for the post of head of maths here."

"I'll not take my coat off, as I might not be stopping too long. Now look here, er, Ramsbottom, isn't it? Well, some working-class name or other. Let me just look at my checklist. Ah yes. I see the maths department was only described as 'generally sound' in your Ofsted report. So what's the form on that one, Ramsbottom?" "I, er, perhaps the headteacher can answer that, er, I think he's got the report in his I" "And while little sunbeam is collecting his thoughts, perhaps you could tell me why you're only sixth out of 10 schools in the Swinesville league table. I'm not prepared to turn out for a second division side."

"We had a bad intake that year. Honestly, Mr Jenkins I" "Call me 'sir'. "

"Honestly, sir, we're doing our best in difficult circumstances."

"And while we're on with it, do you do staff cars? A Jaguar XJS would come in handy. Do I get BUPA membership? Private education for the kids? I certainly wouldn't want mine to attend a fleapit like this. What about time off? Do you mind if I skip Mondays and Fridays - never at my best then - and come in after 10am and leave at 2pm, so I can miss the rush hour?" "Well, we are very short of maths teachers, sir, so you can have whatever you like."

Dream on, Mr Jenkins, we are not quite there yet. But it will take more than honeyed words to resolve the recruitment crisis.

Never mind spreading slime over the problems. The reality is that most teachers love teaching, but not the aggravations that go with it nowadays. Remove those and recruits would flock in.

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