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Thursday, 7 September, 2000, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Stunts schools pull to cover vacancies
science lab
Schools find it hard to get physics teachers
Teachers say schools are using increasingly desperate strategies to "paper over the cracks" caused by staff shortages.


When push comes to shove you've got to put a body in front of the class

Head teacher's comment
Unqualified staff are being used as teachers, class sizes are rising and the curriculum is being tweaked to fit the staff available, says the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

The crisis is adding to the stress on teachers, according to a report the NUT commissioned from Liverpool University academics.

But head teachers are increasingly frustrated by the lack of ministerial recognition for the problems they face.

Click here to read your views about the teacher shortage

Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of Liverpool's Centre for Employment Studies set out to investigate the "paradox" in teacher supply - a continuing shortfall in recruitment but official figures showing schools were fully staffed.

Problem widespread

A representative sample of 573 primary schools and 350 secondary schools in England and Wales indicated that 10% of teaching posts fell vacant in the last academic year, of which 4% remained unfilled - just 0.4% of all posts.

girls doing design work
Design and technology is a problem area
The researchers say this is in line with figures obtained by the Department for Education and by the School Teachers' Review Body, which advises ministers on pay.

But schools were also asked how difficult it was to appoint staff. The answers showed that half were "difficult" and a fifth "very difficult".

Even schools in what might be thought of as very attractive and relatively low-cost areas were having trouble.

The survey echoes one published on Tuesday by the Secondary Heads Association in pointing up the subjects where recruitment is most difficult: design and technology, maths, foreign languages, physics, RE and home economics, and especially special needs co-ordinators.

The academics then interviewed head teachers of 50 primary schools and 57 secondaries.

'Anyone will do'

"I interviewed a physicist on a Saturday, knowing he was being interviewed elsewhere on Monday. That's why I got him," one told them.


On a few occasions when the tape recorder was turned off, the head teacher came close to breaking down

Researchers' report
Another took on a teacher from Australia on the basis of a 20-minute phone conversation.

"When push comes to shove you've got to put a body in front of the class. So long as you know they are not going to kill a child or maim them, what choice do you have?" was another comment.

One school was covering a maths vacancy by temporarily employing a recently-retired science teacher and the local Baptist minister, on a job-share basis.

Temporary appointments are common. "The worry we now have is that some students find themselves with four, five or even six supply teachers," said the head teacher of one school.

Curriculum compromised

And the national curriculum is not being taught fully.

"I am happy to see technology go because I haven't got the teachers to close the gap. If Ofsted want to come in and slap me on the wrist, fine," was one comment.

Class sizes are being increased: three classes merged into two, classes rising from 25 to 28 in one secondary school - even in technology where there are supposed to be no more than 20 for safety reasons.

Prof Smithers and Dr Robinson say head teachers seemed willing to go out of their way to talk to them, in spite of their heavy workload, because they did not feel the message was getting across.

"On a few occasions when the tape recorder was turned off, the head teacher came close to breaking down," they say.

'Quick fix' solutions

The NUT's general secretary, Doug McAvoy, said the government had presided over a decline in recruitment, and heads and teachers were bearing the brunt.

doug mcavoy
Doug McAvoy: "Teachers are bearing the brunt"
"They are forced to take on ever increasing burdens to ensure no child has to be sent home for lack of a teacher," he said.

"Sometimes they are adopting strategies - such as the use of untrained staff - which they know are unacceptable, yet they feel they have to plug the gap somehow."

He said the government's "quick fix" measures to boost recruitment - such as offering "golden hellos" in some shortage subjects - were not the answer.

"Many of those who do enter teaching will leave our state schools because of the extraordinary workload with which they have to cope," he said.

Past suggests way forward

The researchers say the independent sector presented a very different picture, with starting salaries up to 6,000 higher than in state schools and heads of department on as much as 10,000 more.

There might also be help with accommodation in areas of high housing costs.

Yet even in fee-paying schools there are shortages - leading them to "poach" staff from the state sector, making the problem there even worse.

Their report points to the 1955 Royal Commission of the Civil Service as providing a way forward. It argued that to attract the most able candidates, salaries had to be somewhat above the average.

"This seems to us to be an admirable basis for deciding teachers' salaries," they say.

Government action

School Standards Minister Minister Estelle Morris said: "Teaching always faces recruitment difficulties when the economy is in good shape and some schools, especially in London, are feeling the brunt particularly hard.

"But the government has taken every practical step to help them overcome them."

Training salaries, "golden hellos", and an increased "on-the-job" training programme, had all helped to attract more people to the profession, she said.

Applications for post-graduate teacher training courses were up 5% overall, and 9% for the secondary sector, compared with this time last year.

"In January this year, there were nearly 6,000 more teachers in school than at the same time in 1999 and more than at any point during the previous decade," she added.


Is your school suffering this term? Are you worried about your child's education as a result of this crisis? If you're a teacher, has the staff shortage added to your workload? Tell us your views and experiences.


Your reaction

The problem in our schools is caused by discipline: the lack of it. I know one ex-teacher who left the profession because the pupils were too unruly. Nobody wants to put him/herself into the position of being scorned and abused by some of the spoilt little creatures that permeate modern schools; who can blame them.
When I was in school I remember being belted many times for various misdemeanours, bare-faced cheek being one of them: I needed it, and I am glad for it. Unchecked, little hooligans grow into bigger hooligans.
Derick Mackenzie, Scotland


They are expected to do this work for free as it is seen as they will not get on unless they do

Richard Byers, UK
I am the partner of a teacher who started in the profession just 3 years ago. The overriding problem that I see is not naughty children or poor conditions (although both could be improved) it is the back biting antagonism of other teachers. I have had numerous occasions where I have had to come home and comfort my tearful other half after her immediate manager at school has abused her for no reason (and often for invented reasons).
Another problem is pay. Hurray the government now gives teachers on the highest pay levels a chance to earn more, but what about those starting off. My partner started off at the very bottom of the pay ladder and no matter how hard she might work, and how much extracurricular time she (and I) puts in she will not see any of this extra money until she is on the top pay scale in 9 years!!!
There is zero incentive for NQTs (newly Qualified Teachers) to do any extra work. They are expected to do this work for free as it is seen as they will not get on unless they do.
Richard Byers, UK

My wife is an elementary Ed. Teacher - There are shortages here too. In her Pre-K class (about 4 yrs old) she has 21 students - However she does have one "aid" worker helping her. Perhaps the solution lies in increasing the class size for older grades to keep the K-through 3ed grade classes small. However, here there has been a general drive for smaller class sizes without regard to subject, age, or other criteria. This has contributed to our version of the teacher shortage.
Brad Altemeyer, USA

My wife is a qualified RE teacher who also holds a degree in Biology. This year she has been asked by her school to teach science because they do not have enough science teachers. She was told that 'anybody' can teach RE, which left her wondering why she had bothered to train for four years to teach the subject!
Steve Whitehouse, UK


There is no way I could buy a house in the South East on a newly-qualified teacher's salary

John Briody, UK
I am about to start an ICT ITT scheme having worked in the IT industry for the past 7 years. I was almost put off entering the Teaching profession by the huge salary cut I will take. Where is the incentive for graduates and experienced professionals to move into teaching when the financial rewards are so inferior to that on offer in industry?
I will almost certainly have to relocate from the South East to a less expensive place to live when I qualify - there is no way I could buy a house in the South East on a newly-qualified teacher's salary. More money needs to be made available by the government to attract people into the teaching profession by increasing teacher's salaries and helping teachers to cope with the high living costs particularly in the South East.
John Briody, UK

I remember my A-level days when we had four different teachers in two years for maths. I went from an A grade in my mocks to an E grade in the real thing. A fall in grades was seen in most of my peers, however we all did well in our other subjects.
if this is happening to kids day in day out across many subjects, how are they supposed to do well? After all, a good teacher makes a huge difference.
Jason Barnett, United Kingdom


I wanted to be a teacher for quite some time and became disillusioned very quickly

Natalie, England
I taught in an infant school for just one year. I did not leave because of the 'poor' salary but the stress of the workload and responsibility thrown at me as an NQT. I agree with the comments regarding increased class sizes. In my class year we had three class registers, but only two classrooms. Thus on paper we had excellent class sizes - but not in reality.
Teachers, especially those newly qualified, need all the support they can get. At the moment they are not. I wanted to be a teacher for quite some time and became disillusioned very quickly. I would not recommend teaching to anyone thinking of joining the profession and wish every luck to those who continue.
Natalie, England

The body responsible for ensuring an adequate supplies of teachers is the Teacher Training Agency. They have closed a number of teacher training colleges and have redistributed student places from successful recruiters to often remote colleges and local authorities on the basis of questionable assessments undertaken by Ofsted.
It is not surprising that there is a dearth of well qualified teachers especially those willing to work in the inner cities. This is particularly so when alternative employment is less stressful and better rewarded for the diminished number of newly qualified teachers emerging each year.
Jerry, UK


If there is no suitable teacher then children should be sent home

Mike Thompson, England
It's no good head teachers allowing unqualified staff to take classes as a stop-gap measure, as is suggested they do above.
If there is no suitable teacher then children should be sent home. That may be inconvenient in the short term but it will ensure that sufficient suitable teachers are provided and that pupils will then receive a better quality of education. School should be used for education, not just child-minding.
Mike Thompson, England

I find it somewhat ironic, if not very sad, that in secondary schools there is a shortage of staff. In my own institution "The Sheffield College", Sheffield, South Yorkshire, 190 staff are being made redundant due to "overstaffing". Some of those who have already gone via the so-called voluntary redundancy scheme (described by ACM representative as the meanness they had ever seen.) intend to go back to teach in schools. Perhaps those schools who are short of staff should send some scouts out to Sheffield college.
Meanwhile, whilst the Secretary for Education bangs on about education as being a major concern of this Government, in his own back yard lecturers who are still identified as surplus to requirements are facing compulsory redundancy. I never thought that I would experience under a Labour Government the possibility of lecturers being made redundant in such numbers.
Richard Burton, UK


I do less administration in my role as an accountant than most teachers!

Mark, UK
I have many friends who went into teaching to help children get a good start in life. They now have to put up with large amounts of administration, abuse from parents and children to which they can not respond without being sued, and a salary that is an insult.
Teaching is a vocation but let's not forget these people are human and have to live. I am a classical musician as a hobby and have seriously considered a career transition (from an accountant) into teaching as I love music and working with youngsters, but not until the senior ministers allow the education system to focus on children and less on admin. I do less administration in my role as an accountant than most teachers!
Mark, UK

I am a junior school governor. Our main headache is staff recruitment and retention. I have seen several, talented dedicated and very professional teachers come and go at the school. They have often left the teaching profession altogether rather than moving on to another school.
The new 'threshold' system for experienced teachers has been poorly thought through and whilst the extra money is welcome teachers are still poorly paid compared to staff in commercial jobs.
Simon, UK


The government is going to do much more in order to convince this potential teacher

Brij, UK
As someone who will soon graduate from a top university, I am facing the decision of finding a job. I would very much like to become a primary school teacher, however, how on earth can I be expected to choose teaching when faced with the corporate world (offering corporate salaries).
The difference in salaries is astounding. If I were to go into teaching, and this is when compared to the private sector. The government is going to do much more in order to convince this potential teacher.
Brij, UK


Young people do not want to come into this profession when they see this sort of treatment being doled out

Jenny, Scotland
I work in education, and my mother is also a teacher, and we are both desperately worried as to what is happening in schools throughout the UK. It is no surprise that there is a shortage of teachers when they are no longer allowed to teach properly because of the amount of paperwork piled upon them. Young people do not want to come into this profession when they see this sort of treatment being doled out. Even the offer of a 6000 training salary is not helping with recruitment numbers - trust me, I know!
Jenny, Scotland

As a school governor of a large secondary school in the south east of England we have extreme difficulty in recruiting. We have several teachers from overseas who are here on a two year "working holiday" from Greece, South Africa ... anywhere!
However, I work in the engineering industry and we have the same problem hiring graduate engineers. So it is not surprising that teaching is suffering from an overall graduate shortage.
Mark, UK

It's no wonder there's such a shortage of teachers. The working conditions for teachers are awful, the pay is poor, and the whole emphasis in education has been shifted away from learning and towards grades. The answers, though, are reassuringly simple.
Administration should be cut down, and taxes should be increased - taxes in the UK are staggeringly low compared to other European nations - to pay for higher salaries for teachers and to invest in the infrastructures of schools. And all of this nonsense of league tables and continually improving grades should be dropped.
Paul, Wales


PRP can only send the good teachers to the privileged schools where results are guaranteed

Ian Stone, UK
The governments inducements of Performance Related Pay is acting as a barrier to even taking more staff on anyway. It is quite obvious that children from privileged backgrounds perform better at school than those from run down areas, a problem that comes down not to talent but more to aspiration.
PRP can only send the good teachers to the privileged schools where results are guaranteed, so incrementally, the good teachers' pay increases. The more run down schools will then have an even smaller pool of teachers to employ from, and those teachers will undoubtedly be of a worse quality than the ones teaching at the more privileged schools.
Well done Labour, rather than breaking down the class system, you've managed to reinforce it further at an even more fundamental level. Wonder where my vote's going this election......
Ian Stone, UK

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See also:

05 Sep 00 | Education
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Who would be a teacher?
05 Jan 00 | Education
Maths Year clock starts ticking
02 Sep 99 | Education
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