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Saturday, 13 January, 2001, 12:34 GMT
Truth about teacher shortages
BBC education correspondent Mike Baker considers the contentious issue of teacher shortages in England.
It has been called a "crisis". The situation is said to be "close to meltdown".
Some pupils are on a short week and teacher unions are balloting for industrial action.
Yet the government says the teacher shortage is being hyped by the media.
What is the reality?
Before Christmas a handful of schools resorted to sending some pupils home for part of the week. They are now back on full timetables.
This term, a school in Swindon is sending some pupils home for two periods a week and another, in Ipswich, delayed the start of term for a couple of days.
Officially, few vacancies
The government points to official figures showing the teacher vacancy level is just 0.7%.
The Department for Education also points out that there are 7,000 more teachers in post than a year ago and 9% more in training than this time last year.
So who are we to believe: Government statistics or the undeniable problems in some schools? Curiously both can be true.
Just because most schools are avoiding sending children home does not mean they do not have staff shortages.
The more mundane - but hardly less damaging - reality is that in many parts of the country head teachers are papering over the shortages as best they can with short-term contracts, supply staff, teachers from overseas and the appointment of inappropriately qualified teachers.
But what is a vacancy?
These short-term remedies may avoid the drama of pupils being sent home but the long-term effects on teachers and pupils may be almost as damaging. Being taught by teachers who have been drafted in at the last moment, or who are not qualified to teach that subject, is barely better than not being taught at all.
The problem has been brewing for some years. A thorough and impartial account is given in the recent study by Professor Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Liverpool University: Attracting Teachers: Past Patterns, Present Policies, Future Prospects (December 2000).
Smithers and Robinson show that the government's January 2000 survey found only 2,732 vacancies in England and Wales. This is the equivalent of 0.7% of the workforce.
There was considerable variation across the country and for different subjects. So, for example, the vacancy rate in inner London was 2.3% and for mathematics it was 1.2%.
However, the official definition of a "vacancy" does not include any permanently empty post which is being filled by an appointment lasting at least a term.
In short, a part-time or temporary solution means the vacancy does not officially exist.
So Smithers and Robinson look at the problem from the other side, asking whether enough new teachers are being trained to replace those leaving the profession.
They say that retirements and resignations mean that just over 30,000 teachers leave each year.
With the pupil population fairly static that is roughly the number of new recruits required, although cutting class sizes in primary schools has required an increase in teacher numbers.
The overall teacher training target for England and Wales for 1999 was just under 30,000. That is equivalent to 12% of the entire graduate output of the UK. This shows what a tall order it is to meet teacher training targets.
In some subjects it is tougher still. In 1999, to meet post-graduate certificate of education recruitment targets for modern languages teachers it was necessary to recruit over 40% of all language graduates. The requirement was almost as high for mathematics graduates.
Against this background, it is not surprising that the government has repeatedly failed to meet its secondary teacher recruitment targets since 1992. In 1999 it was 17% below target despite incentive schemes for science and maths trainees.
By contrast there has been no problem meeting the primary recruitment targets. It is therefore unfortunate that, although primary school pupil numbers are due to fall slightly over the next decade, secondary school numbers are expected to rise by 5% over the next five years.
The most recent figures - for training courses starting in September 2000 - show primary recruitment just exceeded the target but in secondary it fell short again by just over 2,000 recruits.
The table below shows the rate of recruitment against targets:
However, the teacher shortage issue is not just a matter of matching the total number of vacancies with the total number of new recruits. Just as important is whether unemployed teachers are available in the parts of the country, and in the subjects, where they are needed.
BBC News Online has received e-mails from teachers who are frustrated that, despite all the attention given to shortages, they cannot find a job.
The reality is that, for the most part, it is schools with particular problems - such as being on "special measures" - or schools in areas of high housing costs that are finding it hardest to recruit.
So, although recruitment is a problem in many parts of the country, it is most acute in London and the south east.
What's to be done?
One obvious answer to this is to increase salary levels in areas of higher living costs. I am sure we will see movement in this direction when the Teachers' Pay Review Body reports early next month.
Forward-looking education authorities will also start doing more to provide housing for teachers.
Meanwhile, there are signs that it is getting harder to recruit head teachers too.
The latest survey from Professor John Howson, of Education Data Surveys, shows that over 2,500 head teachers left their jobs in 2000. That is the largest number since 1997 when changes to the early retirement rules led to a previous peak.
Replacing head teachers is becoming increasingly difficult. In London over 60% of schools failed to appoint on their first advertisement for the vacancy.
Such a heavy turnover of school managers, in the midst of wider staff problems, does not bode well for schools.
Mike Baker welcomes your comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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