Reward the bearers of revolution

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Radical plans to raise standards require radical solutions to the shortage of teachers, says Margaret Hodge

A crisis faces our schools. A crisis that could ground David Blunkett's schools revolution before it takes off. Without enough teachers and without enough good teachers, literacy and numeracy targets may not be met and any reduction in class sizes will be worthless.

The Tory legacy we uncovered during our inquiry is alarming. There will be 11 per cent fewer undergraduates studying teaching in 1997 than there were in 1996. Nearly a quarter of those who are trained never take a job in teaching.

We need to offer radical solutions if this crisis is to be averted. The report by MPs on the education select committee, published this week, does just that. We propose a new fast-stream for potential high-flyers - offering a fast-track to headship or to "advanced skills" status for those who come into the profession with top qualifications.

Minimum A-level standards for undergraduates on teacher-training courses will ensure that all teachers have the knowledge they need to succeed in the classroom. Taster courses for undergraduates studying other subjects could encourage more to take up teaching as a first rather than a last option. Graduates who may be deterred from teaching by the extra student debt they would incur should be helped.

The position is acute in some key subjects, like maths. Applications for training as a maths teacher have fallen by 36 per cent since September 1993 and last year one third of training places were left unfilled. We need to recruit one in three maths graduates into teaching if we are to meet the Government's targets. This leaves every parent wondering who on earth will be teaching our children maths.

Pressure on numbers inevitably puts pressure on the quality of those coming into teaching. Of course there are many good, committed and well-qualified teachers in our schools, but are there enough of them? The average A-level grades of those taking an undergraduate course in teaching is equivalent to two Ds and a C. The average for all other undergraduate courses is just over three Cs. In one teacher-training institution 90 per cent of students had A-level equivalents of two Ds and an E - or below!

Headteachers told us about the difficulties they face in finding good quality staff. A recent study by Brunel University's Centre for Education and Employment Research found that a fifth of primary posts and more than a quarter of secondary positions were difficult to fill. In inner London this rises to almost 50 per cent. More than half the posts were difficult to fill because of the poor quality of the applicants.

And all of this is against a background of rising numbers of children in schools and a Government commitment to cut class sizes for our younger children.

The most common cry we hear is of poor pay. Yet if we look at international comparisons, Britain comes fourth in the pay league for teachers which was compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The issue for Britain is not the starting salary, but, for talented teachers, the opportunities to progress.

But obviously there are other factors. There is stiff competition for graduates from other employers and the image and morale of the teaching profession has taken a battering in recent years. One-sided press reports attacking teachers have taken their toll. Yes, we must have pressure to raise standards, but good teachers also need and deserve our support.

The Government has started to address these difficult issues. The new advertising campaign is welcome and the proposal to create a career structure which keeps teachers in the classroom by establishing an "advanced skills teachers" grade is important. The study to reduce the bureaucratic workload of teachers so that more of their time is spent teaching is pleasing.

But we need to do more. We need a mechanism for identifying and rewarding high-flyers, thus the fast-track to headship should be considered. An induction year to ensure that those not up to the job do not qualify should form the basis of a new deal. A teaching module as an option in degree courses could attract more people.

We were told that graduates are discouraged from teaching by the extra year's training. They face the extra living costs and they lose earnings by spending another year as a student.

We suggest two solutions. Teachers could be paid part of their first year's salary during their final year's training which would fit in with plans for a probationary year and would not involve extra cost.

Alternatively, teachers could have part of their student loans repaid annually for every year they remain in the classroom. This payment could be linked to appraisal and could be higher for teachers working in shortage areas.

Good teachers could be rewarded by the chance to take a sabbatical in industry, at a local university or in voluntary service. Such breaks would give teachers a chance to renew their energy and develop their skills.

Some headteachers want to return to classroom teaching rather than retiring early, but need to have their pensions linked to their head- teacher's salary. Ministers have now said they will change the regulations to allow this to happen, and I welcome that.

Mature late entrants into teaching currently go through training, but cannot find jobs, because they are more expensive for schools to employ. The local management formula needs to be revisited to deal with that and other problems.

Our ideas are neither the only nor the total answer to the problem of teacher shortages. But this matter is pressing and bold and radical initiatives need to be taken. I would urge the Government to look closely at our report and to move swiftly to safeguard its schools revolution.

Margaret Hodge, MP, is chair of the Commons education and employment select committee

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