We've seen it all before

8th September 2000 at 01:00
The current teacher crisis is nothing new. And despite what the unions say, it isn't the worst - yet. Jon Slater reports.

AS schools reopened this week, many headteachers were still struggling to find properly qualified teachers to take lessons. A crisis of teacher supply means that many children will start term being taught maths by their PE teacher or with a supply teacher at the front of their class.

This week's TES survey and a report by the National Union of Teachers both provide compelling evidence of the dearth of teachers available to fill posts.

The unions say the situation is unprecedented. "This is the biggest teacher recruitment crisis there has ever been. There are more schools reporting problems than ever before," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.

But is it? There have been serious shortages before. Successive education secretaries in the late 1980s and early 1990s struggled to come to grips with a shortage of teachers. And those with even longer memories recall crises in the 40s, 60s and 70s.

The 1870 Education Act which extended primary education to the masses, was followed by a scramble to recruit sufficient teachers. More recently, 35,000 ex-servicemen and women were trained as teachers between 1944-51 to meet a shortfall after the Second World War and to facilitate the raising of the school leaving age to 15.

And in the 1960s the shortage of teachers was so severe that Anthony Crosland, then education secretary, was forced to write to local mayors asking them to encourage people to become primary school teachers.

But the crisis which is most fresh in the minds of politicians, academics and teachers is that of the late 80s and early 90s. Then the shortage of teachers was also described as "the worst ever". Then, like now, high house prices in the South-east meant London was the worst affected.

The London borough of Tower Hamlets was taken to court by parents angry that the authority could not find places for their children. And other local authorities went to extraordinary lengths to recruit teachers. The London borough of Southwark even sent recruiters to the Munich beer festival in a desperate bid to attract overseas teachers. And with one in 20 London teaching posts vacant in 1990, it is perhaps not surprising that many schools felt that they were being forced to scrape the barrel when they tried to fill posts.

The year 1990 saw the peak of the last shortage. Across England, 1.8 per cent of teaching posts were vacant - compared to just 0.8 per cent this year.

According to Professor John Howson, a recruitment expert who has conducted regular surveys of teacher supply, this is evidence that the current crisis does not match that of a decade ago. However, he thinks things will get worse before they get better.

"This is not the worst crisis eer but it is heading in that direction," he said. "We do not have the trainees coming out of the training system so I would expect the vacancy rate to shoot up sharply, especially as schools get more money in their budgets. If you give schools money before you train more teachers the situation will only get worse."

The Government's attempts to tackle the crisis have copied the tactics of the late '80s - golden hellos, bursaries for those training in shortage subjects and a high-profile advertising campaign were all tried last time.

But there are key differences. Ten years ago local authorities played a major role in helping schools to recruit teachers. Councils set up workplace nurseries to attract teachers with families back to the classroom and funded relocation packages to attract teachers from other areas.

Since local authorities no longer have the resources to play such an active role the Government has been forced to act. But Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University, one of the country's leading experts on teacher supply and co-author of this week's NUT report, believes Whitehall has been too slow to react. "The Government recognised the scale of the problem rather belatedly. We still don't know how successful training salaries are going to be. Bursaries increased applications in the 1980s but the effect died away after a few years," he said.

Professor Smithers believes this crisis is potentially more serious than the last. He says current figures hide the true scale of the problem because headteachers are becoming more adept at managing with fewer teachers.

The last crisis was also partly caused by the Government cutting teacher training. "One way the crisis was solved was by expanding training places. That will not work this time," he said.

Both Professor Smithers and Professor Howson point to the collapse of the Lawson boom of the late 1980s and the recession which followed as a key factor in ending the shortage. Indeed it could be argued that the teacher supply crisis has never really gone away. Rising unemployment and insecurity in other professions just made teaching seem more attractive. Many inactive teachers returned to the classroom to make ends meet and new graduates desperate for work were prepared to ignore stories of low pay and poor morale.

Now that the economy is booming again the old problems have reappeared. One measure of this is that house prices in "hot" areas such as London have continued to outstrip increases in starting salaries for graduate teachers. So what can be done?

Professor Smithers believes he has an answer. "The Government has to tackle the fundamentals. That means looking at salaries and the amount of money that schools are getting. Working conditions need to be improved so that teachers can concentrate on teaching rather than being constantly hassled."

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