Week in perspective

1st December 2000 at 00:00
TONY Blair signalled a softer line towards teachers this week as he promised to make them members of the "most prestigious profession in the country".

The premier, speaking at a London conference for 500 newly qualified head- teachers, said more than 250,000 trainees needed to be recruited into the profession over the next decade.

"The Government intends to continue to make teaching more attractive in terms of pay and rewards, particularly in the areas where it is hardest to recruit and retain," the Prime Minister said. "Teaching requires more graduates from our leading universities who in recent decades have too often shunned teaching for what appear to be brighter lights elsewhere."

Mr Blair's comments appeared to mark a significant softening of his rhetoric on teachers. At the same conference last year, the Prime Minister had controversially attacked the "culture of excuses" in the profession.

The reason for the new tone may have been revealed by Education Secretary David Blunkett on BBC1's On The Record programme, when he revealed schools came close to "meltdown" this year because of a shortage of teachers.

"Had we not acted at the end of March, I think we'd have been very close to meltdown. We've agreed to put a total of pound;180 million into new programmes and, thank God, they're beginning to show some fruit. We're not out of the woods yet," he said.

The Government now pays a pound;6,000 "golden hello" to new graduates and pound;4,000 bonuses for recruits in mathematics, science and information technology.

The drive to recruit 250,000 new teachers launched by Mr Blair is expected to include interest-free hom loans and living allowances to those in high-cost areas. Schools in poor areas will be able to offer up to pound;3,900 a year extra on salaries to attract staff.

Meanwhile, private schools launched a recruitment drive of their own. A group of 16 public schools travelled to the American Association of Boarding Schools annual conference in Washington DC to try to convince US children to travel to the Britain for their education.

Overseas pupil numbers in boarding schools rose by 10 per cent last year, helping to compensate for a significant drop in the number of home students willing to stay away from home. The strong dollar makes the US a prime recruiting ground.

At home, boarding schools are optimistic that the massively successful Harry Potter books are boosting their image.

Dr Stephen Winkley, the head of Uppingham, said JK Rowling's tales had "helped to transform the image of boarding" into something that was "exciting and fun".

Maybe all that time spent reading the Potter adventures will have a more important positive side effect: teaching our children how to use the English language.

Chris Woodhead, presenting his last report as head of the Office for Standards in Education on Tuesday, said poor writing skills, particularly among boys, were holding back literacy.

He said children were spending too much time on "low-level writing tasks" and too little time being taught how to write imaginatively and correctly, the report said, and "further gains (in literacy) are likely to become progressively more difficult to achieve without substantial improvement in writing, particularly that of boys".

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