Room for a little love and satisfaction

15th September 2000 at 01:00
SOME 25 years ago, when I was news editor on this paper, I was ambitious to get news on to the front page. Since the tradition was to divide the front between a big, beautiful picture and a magisterial leader - and the editor then was powerfully magisterial - my chances looked slim. Until one of the print unions went on strike.

Was it NATSOPA or SOGAT? Distance obscures the dread acronyms, but whoever was responsible for converting photographs into "blocks" for printing withdrew labour on press day, leaving a big hole on the front page where the beautiful picture should have been. I seized my chance.

For the first time The TES carried news in its rightful place, on the front, and there was no doubt about the story of the week: the dramatic teacher shortage, and the struggle of London schools to put here-today-and-gone-tomorrow supply teachers in front of classes. We picked a quote from one London pupil to use as a banner headline: "Are you going to be here tomorrow, sir?" It summed it all up then, and hit the button just as sharply when I read the warning from a recruitment agency in last week's paper, that pupils in London may have up to 12 teachers for a subject in a single year. As Jon Slater reported in Briefing in the same issue, the current teacher supply crisis is nothing new, we've seen it all before; it's just that governments conveniently forget about it when recession drives graduates out of other professions and back into the classroom.

Within a year or so of our pupil's lament, the last oil crisis had done just that, until in due course the cycle whirled on to meet the twin pressures of demography and the Lawson boom. When I became editor in 1989 it seemed that the rising projections of pupil numbers meant that a teacher shortage must inevitably be a key issue for educational policy-making, and for the paper, for many years ahead.

But as bust just as inevitably followed boom, the Thatcher Government felt able to push that particular imperatve down the agenda, in favour of less teacher-friendly initiatives. Union-bashing, free-market choice, a reborn curriculum and public spending cuts headed the educational agenda. Demographic curves may have pointed to a demand for teachers, but schools forced to cut their own budgets to the bone were more likely to push out existing staff than to hire the new teachers they needed to deliver the formal curriculum and make it in the league.

There were plenty of well-founded warnings of impending crisis from the likes of Howson, Smithers and Wragg, as governments came and went, but teachers continued to be labelled as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. If that were really so, then Heaven knows the attrition and shake out of the Woodhead years must have cleared away any dead wood by now, along with too many other dedicated, disillusioned colleagues.

So here we are now in a state of blessed economic stability, with the predictable classroom crisis. Too late, as usual, the Government is introducing many of the sensible measures necessary to make teaching as attractive as other graduate professions - a training salary, fast tracking, the chance of major salary and promotion hikes.

Of course such policies won't deliver quality recruits to the classroom in time to solve this year's - or next year's - shortage, unless the looming new oil crisis allows ministers to put their heads in the sand again.

Whatever happens to the economy, we won't get the good teachers we need long-term while the political rhetoric suggests they are still part of the problem. The Prime Minister's speech on comprehensives did just that, by association, and drove the real classroom crisis out of the headlines.

Surely it must be obvious by now that threatening teachers has become counter-productive. Nurture is the missing ingredient. Teachers need to feel loved, and they need job satisfaction as much as money, if they are to be there to provide solutions.

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