After 18 years of Tory rule, many London schools have seen a drastic reduction in the number of teachers prepared to work full time. Some are now mainly staffed by agency teachers on daily contracts who change schools when they have a bad time. Considering that many agencies pay them 40 per cent less than they would get in regular employment, who can blame them?
The schools on this merry-go-round achieve poorly and become sink schools with a large number of disturbed children who have been rejected, subtly or otherwise, by neighbouring schools that can select socially, if not academically.
What happens next? The schools fail OFSTED and the few permanent staff who probably work harder than their counterparts in other schools crack up or move on. Many of the under-achieving pupils in these schools are ones who need the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship outside their own homes. Stability is a missing factor in many of their lives and instability is becoming institutionalised in their education.
The education Bill now before Parliament puts forward education action zones as the solution for persistently failing schools but it overlooks those about to fall into the same category.
Surely prevention is better and cheaper than the cure? On the positive side, the Bill recognises that the national curriculum is over-prescriptive and fails many pupils, but why should only failed schools be allowed to adopt a more relevant system?
How do we get full-time teachers back? There is no single solution but I would propose these ideas: 1 Class size. Bright, well motivated children in private schools are taught in groups of 20. How can you expect effective teaching for less motivated pupils in 30-plus classes? Reduce the class size.
2 Disruptive pupils. These harm the opportunities of others. If they are identified and supported they must be removed from the classroom if that support is ineffective. It is amazing that in yet another cost-cutting exercise there are proposals to integrate more difficult pupils into mainstream non-selective schools which already have more than their fair share. At the same time these schools will be expected to increase pass rates. Selective schools will obviously not be taking these pupils.
3 Extra points. Inner-city teachers should receive extra pay. The current London allowance is derisory compared to the average going rate in comparable jobs.
4 National curriculum. Slim it down and provide schools with the flexibility to use local discretion.
5 Workload. Reduce it. The agency staff don't have to get wrapped up in the paperwork - they just go in and teach. Why has the recent Coopers amp; Lybrand survey not been fully accepted? Because it found the truth.
This is no use to ministers and inspectors who thrive on the stuff and actually have a vested interest in increasing bureaucracy. Innovation moves people on - sweeping clean makes a less profitable contribution to the leeches living off the classroom teacher.
6 Selection: End it. Given that state schools are funded for all, why should we accept a system which sets up sink schools, discriminates against single parents and encourages unnecessary long journeys and further bureaucracy as pupils travel across authorities? "No selection either by interview or examination" we heard. Did we?
7 Raise teacher morale and status. Put 1-6 in place. The unsung stars are the staff who do their best despite the problems of the system.
I now wonder if the Conservatives did lose the last election. Unless public services are funded and organised properly there will be an even larger underclass than before. Bite the bullet Tony, if you care. Some MPs probably do - more than 40 of yours and the Lib-Dems at the last count.
Tony Payton has taught in inner-city comprehensive schools for 25 years