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Thursday, 5 July, 2001, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Teacher shortages warning to parents
One of the most successful education authorities in England is warning parents that its schools might have to take drastic action next term to cope with a shortage of teachers.
Efforts would continue over the summer to fill the posts, he said, but it would be "unrealistic" to expect them all to be filled by the start of the new academic year.
"It may be necessary to make changes to the way classes are organised, the number of subjects offered and even the length of the school week," he wrote.
Click here for the text of the letter
The general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Doug McAvoy, said this could not be dismissed as scaremongering but illustrated the depth of a wider crisis.
Some good news
Surrey's schools regularly feature near the top of the performance league tables and the education authority has been particularly radical in being the first to privatise the running of two schools.
In a separate letter to head teachers, Dr Gray said that despite the serious recruitment difficulties, the quality of teachers who were being appointed appeared to be very high.
And even though it was late in the school year, schools were still making appointments for September.
Teachers who are leaving are being asked to complete confidential "exit questionnaires" to try to establish why they are going.
Adverts were being put in the local press, Dr Gray said, aimed particularly at qualified teachers who had left the profession.
This group is also being targeted by the government as part of its efforts to recruit more teachers.
Rewards of up to £4,000 are on offer for people who return to the classroom.
A council audit of Surrey schools' vacancy levels in June showed 487 unfilled full-time posts and 100 part-time.
The main secondary school vacancies included:
It is offering recruitment and retention allowances - yet is short of teachers for PE, RE, art, English, science, maths, geography and technology.
The council said on Thursday that the situation had improved somewhat in the last few weeks.
The possibility that some schools would need to make changes to the way classes were organised was now "much reduced".
But Doug McAvoy said the audit showed the need for a positive outcome from the current review of teachers' workload - including a 35-hour weekly limit.
"There must also be an urgent and independent review of teachers' pay," he said.
"This will make teaching more attractive and, over time, help solve the crisis. This is clear evidence of the depth of that crisis, not just in Surrey but across the country as a whole."
He said the government would not gain any comfort from Dr Gray's warnings.
"His letter graphically exposes the failure of this government and its predecessor to heed the warnings about teacher shortages. Now it is the children who will suffer," he added.
The end of the summer term is always a critical time for schools as teachers change jobs and they have to be replaced.
St George's School in Maida Vale, London, which has been turned around after the traumas that included the fatal stabbing of its former head, Philip Lawrence, is losing 16 teachers.
They include Lady Marie Stubbs, who is returning to retirement after leading the recovery, and several members of her top management team.
What the letter from Surrey suggests is that the underlying problem is that there are simply not enough teachers to go around.
Media coverage of the national shortage of teachers will not have escaped your attention. The situation this year is the worst I have ever experienced. In common with schools throughout the country, Surrey schools are finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacant posts. Here, we have the added factor of high housing costs, which deter many teachers from living and working in Surrey.
Throughout the summer period, the local education authority will continue to support our schools in seeking to fill all current vacancies. However, it would be unrealistic to expect all posts to be filled by the beginning of the new academic year - there are simply insufficient teachers to meet all of our needs. Schools will respond to any staff shortages they have in different ways and, probably, at short notice. It may be necessary to make changes to the way classes are organised, the number of subjects offered and even the length of the school week.
I do not wish to be alarmist, but I do want to be open and realistic with parents. Next term is going to be a challenging one for us all and I ask you for your understanding and forbearance in any action your Headteacher and Governors may need to take. For many years, Surrey schools have been the most successful of any county in the country, and parents and pupils can be assured that we will do everything possible to ensure that our schools continue to offer a first class education. Despite the current recruitment difficulties, I am confident that they will.
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