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Monday, 26 March, 2001, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
School forced onto four-day week
The North School
The North School: Two vacancies, five teachers sick
Secondary school students in Kent are being sent home as teachers' action over shortages begins in the county.

The biggest problem is at The North School in Ashford, which has had to introduce a four-day week for all except the GCSE year group - three days for the youngest pupils.

A spokeswoman for Kent County Council said Year 8 pupils - 12 to 13 year olds - were sent home for the day on Monday.

On Tuesday Year 9s will be sent home for the day, followed by Year 7s on Wednesday and again on Friday.

On Thursday, Year 10s - the first year GCSE pupils - will not be in school.

Staff sick

The school has vacancies for two teachers, plus another five on long-term sick leave whose absence is no longer being covered by other teachers.

The Department for Education claimed Kent had not asked for help from the special team it had set up to try to avoid such situations.

"The local education authority did not seek our assistance in advance in finding supply teachers despite several offers to help if they expected difficulties," a spokeswoman said.

But Kent said this was not so. Its spokeswoman said it had learnt of the problem at The North School only late on Friday and had contacted the department's support unit on Monday morning.

Sheila Storey
Sheila Storey: Staff suffering
Some pupils at another school, Senacre Technology College in Maidstone, were being supervised in a school hall due to lack of staff.

The college has two staff vacancies which would not be filled until the start of the new school year in September, as well as three staff absent due to sickness.

The head teacher, Sheila Storey, said it had been extremely hard on the staff who had had to cover for those who were absent as well as to deliver their own lessons.

"This has affected them in many instances because clearly the added pressure has meant that their health has suffered."

'Not enough teachers'

"We are doing everything we can to help schools manage the situation so that wherever possible schools can avoid the necessity of sending pupils home," said Kent's strategic director of education and libraries, Nick Henwood.

Nick Henwood
Nick Henwood: "National problem"
"Unfortunately, the teacher shortage is a national problem - there are not enough teachers to fill vacancies countrywide, nor are there enough supply teachers available to cover staff vacancies through sickness.

"In Kent, the high cost of living and proximity to London, where teachers receive a London weighting allowance, compounds the problem."

Teachers are refusing to cover for absent colleagues as part of a campaign by the main classroom unions, the NUT and NASUWT, to draw attention to the issue of teacher shortages.

A deal has been proposed by the Local Government Association - representing the employers for most teachers - but the unions have not agreed as yet on suspending their action to discuss this.

'We await news'

The general secretary of the NASUWT, Nigel de Gruchy, said: "The NASUWT is willing to suspend its action in the light of the employers offering talks on the cover problem and the whole of the teacher's contract.

"In addition, the government has changed its mind and agreed to establish an independent inquiry into teachers' workloads.

"However, we are committed to acting in concert with the NUT. Consequently, we have postponed implementing our decision in principle to suspend the action.

"We await news from the NUT. I very much hope, therefore, that the NUT can reach a decision within the next few days."

'Starved of staff'

The NUT's executive committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday morning when it will be considering any further approaches from the employers and deciding whether or not to suspend the action.

The union's leader, Doug McAvoy, said the short week for pupils in The North School was "an inevitable consequence of the shortages".

"Our schools are starved of staff, our teachers have been exploited for many years now and they cannot take any more.

"This government and its predecessor have insisted on sticking-plaster solutions - they haven't worked and it is clear to parents that they haven't worked.

"We hope that the possibility of talks will help to find a long-term solution to the problem."

The education department says there can be no discussion of issues such as teachers' workload while the unions' action continues.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The NUT's John Bangs
"We have a massive teacher-supply crisis"
The BBC's Yvette Austin
"The first school to send home pupils on the first day of action in Kent"
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