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Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 11:59 GMT
Four-day week threat in schools
A shortage of teachers could force schools to adopt a four-day week, says an education authority.
Essex local education authority has written to the Education Secretary David Blunkett warning that it cannot recruit enough teachers for its schools and that this is damaging the quality of education.
Unless there is an increase in the supply of teachers, the council is warning that schools could be forced later this year to adopt a four-day week.
And in Swindon, the head teacher of Headlands secondary school has warned that teaching time could be reduced in the new term because of a lack of staff.
Echoing these concerns, head teachers' union leader, David Hart, said that "alarm bells" should be ringing in government over teacher shortages and that "we are touching meltdown".
And pointing to the potential for political embarrassment, Mr Hart said: "Politically this is very damaging because part-time schooling is as bad as lengthy hospital waiting lists or patients lying on trolleys in hospital corridors."
"Headteachers are increasingly feeling demoralised and frustrated that, despite their best efforts, they cannot secure the teachers they need," reads the letter from Paul Lincoln, director of learning services.
The letter says that the "severe difficulties" are affecting both primary and secondary schools in the county.
And the authority warns that school standards are being jeopardised, as head teachers are forced to recruit teachers "who only two years ago they would not even have shortlisted".
The local authority had over 200 vacancies last term, said senior education officer Nigel Hunt, with adverts for staff sometimes failing to draw a single response.
He said that the authority was conscious that a flu epidemic this winter could have serious implications for staffing schools.
And even if the threat of a four-day week "was not imminent, it would be foolish to wait until it was", he said. As such the council was giving the government warning of the scale of the challenge ahead.
This will be the biggest problem so far in the government's long-running efforts to recruit enough teachers to fill vacancies in schools.
And it will threaten to embarrass the government as it prepares to make education a key issue in a forthcoming election campaign.
The prospect of parents facing childcare problems as children are sent home and exam preparations are disrupted will not be the kind of education headlines sought by the government in election year.
Last term, three schools in England put their pupils on a temporary four-day week because of a lack of staff - but this will be the first time that a whole education authority will have reported a widespread risk of a reduced timetable.
There have been warnings from opposition parties and unions that this term could see staffing levels stretched to breaking point, with shortages being compounded by winter illnesses and a lack of supply teachers.
Essex has a particular problem in recruiting teachers in that it does not have the extra salary weighting on offer in schools in nearby London.
High housing costs
This was one of the problems that forced a school in Berkshire onto a four-day week last term, with a lack of London weighting being aggravated by the deterrent of high housing costs.
Other recruitment problems recently reported have been in specific subjects areas, such as maths and modern languages; failing schools and schools in rural areas.
But the government has repeatedly rejected claims of a recruitment crisis, saying that there are now 7,000 more teachers in the classroom than two years ago.
And the government says it has introduced long-term solutions to the recruitment problems, with pay reforms and a training salary helping to reverse a long-term decline in students entering teacher training.
"However, we know there are some schools with recruitment difficulties, particularly in London and the Home Counties, and in shortage subjects," said a government spokesperson.
"We have been working closely with schools and LEAs to offer every practical help as we did with the three schools that had such difficulties last term.
"There is more to do, but at a time of a strong economy and a buoyant graduate recruitment market, the incentives we have introduced are bucking a decade long decline in teacher recruitment."
The Conservative education spokesperson, Theresa May, accused the government of complacency over the recruitment problems facing schools.
"Estelle Morris claims that the government is addressing the problem but this will ring hollow with heads who are desperately trying to fill staff vacancies in the new year," said Ms May.
"Many are facing the very real prospect of sending children home because of teacher shortages."
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