What price stability in the East End?

29th September 1995 at 01:00
If Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's proposed bonuses for teachers in disadvantaged areas ever become a reality, the teachers at Blessed John Roche RC school in east London should be guaranteed a place towards the front of the queue.

For a start, racial tension is part of life here in Poplar. The school is only about half a mile from the streets where the British National Party campaigned successfully in a council by-election two years ago, and staff, apparently, take to the streets when trouble flares. "We drive around making sure our pupils are getting on to buses and home safely," says deputy head Pat Simmons. "Incidents are triggered off very easily - it tends to be the white and Afro-Caribbean kids against the most recent immigrants, the Asians."

The school is set in the middle of a vast maze of council estates, punctuated here and there by disconnected sections of Victorian terrace - former streets that now lead nowhere. Half of the pupils at Blessed John Roche are eligible for free school meals, and 34 per cent of the parents earn less than Pounds 4,500 a year. Despite this, exam results are steadily improving and the pupils seem polite.

The Pounds 1,500 bonuses that the School Teachers' Review Body have been asked to consider, would appear to be a solution to the wrong problem here, for it is budget cuts rather than difficulties with recruitment and retention that threaten staff levels at Blessed John Roche.

The teachers had mixed feelings about the idea. "Would it be fresh money, or just a question of schools being told how to spend reserves?" asked Danny Lyons, the rep from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "It feels a bit like a little carrot, not the four-course meal that we need - for education, not just salaries," said another teacher.

Others wondered how the criteria for disadvantage would be defined in cases of schools with socially-mixed intakes, and questioned whether Pounds 1,500 would be enough to tempt high-quality staff from affluent areas into the inner city. "Would a teacher in Lincolnshire come into London even for Pounds 5,000? It wouldn't meet the cost of moving into the London housing market at the right level, leaving aside the question of quality of life," said Corinna Smart, deputy head of the sixth form.

Nobody, however, agreed with Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary, that the extra money would stigmatise the beneficiaries, arguing that the stigma is already there. "The reaction is always 'oh God, rather you than me'," said Corinna Smart, "Friends who teach in Bromley say they wouldn't swop for any money."

The idea of relocation packages for senior teachers was viewed favourably, provided it was combined with subsidised housing for junior teachers at the bottom of the pay spine, to bring fresh talent into the classroom.

On top of the inner-London allowance, worth Pounds 1,950 a year, the governors also pay teachers one retention and recruitment point, taking everybody's salary up one point on the spine. Some staff are also paid an extra Pounds 2,001 - a legacy from Tower Hamlets' recruitment drive six years ago. All this has secured the school several years of stability during which retention and recruitment have not been a problem (there is currently only one vacant post). But this stability is now threatened by a budget cut of about Pounds 250, 000.

"It's particularly important to be able to attract and retain staff in this sort of school," said Corinna Smart, "it's vital that the children see the same faces - school is often the only stable factor in their lives."

Unfortunately a stable staff soon becomes an expensive staff as teachers accumulate salary points. Teaching costs at Blessed John Roche now make up 75 per cent of the budget, total staff costs account for more than 90 per cent. Reserves have already been used up to maintain the status quo, so the spectre of job losses and larger classes looms. "The school still has to be heated and repairs done, so it looks likely that cuts will be made from staffing," said one teacher.

They were pessimistic about the prospects of more money. "Gillian Shephard's hands are tied. I can't see any fresh money for education with tax cuts in the offing before the election," said one.

The mood among the staff, they said, was "not exactly militant, more a feeling that we're increasingly swimming against the financial tide". They told stories of members of staff moonlighting as taxi-drivers and waitresses. One, after 20 years of teaching, had just paid off enough negative equity to start again on the housing ladder, another, in his first job, was paying off a large student debt - "I ate, you see."

Deputy head Mike Earley said that education in general suffered from crisis management. "There was a real problem with recruitment five or six years ago. We got money to offset this. Now we have the stability, but the money is being taken away. We are always offered short-term solutions."

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