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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 13:19 GMT
Teacher shortages and pay
teachers' pay rises graph
Labour says it has reversed a long term decline in teacher recruitment - the Tories say teacher shortages show the government's failure to deliver.

Education is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies - and Westminster MPs have little influence over education policy in these parts of the United Kingdom. For more information see our full guide to devolution.


BACKGROUND

As the threat of a winter flu epidemic receded, a sigh of relief might have been heard from Labour's education team, which had feared a sudden spate of illness in the staffroom would worsen teacher shortages.

English schools, particularly in the South East, have been reporting difficulties in finding even temporary staff to fill vacancies.

Even though only a handful of schools were forced on to a four-day week by teacher shortages, it was enough for the Conservatives to use this repeatedly as an example of the Labour Party's failure to deliver on education.

INSPECTORS' CONCERNS

And it has not been only the opposition parties who have highlighted the problems of shortages.

The inspection body, Ofsted, reported that over-dependence on temporary staff could contribute to behaviour problems in schools.

There has been a long running dispute over the extent to which the teacher shortage is a crisis. The teachers' unions have said that it is a very serious problem, threatening large parts of England.

But the Department for Education has argued that there are more teachers in the classroom than two years ago - and that the problem can be managed.

In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales there has been little evidence of a teacher shortage threatening to close schools.

COUNTER CLAIMS

Labour in government said that teacher shortages were as bad under previous Conservative governments. Research from the Local Government Association says that there are fewer teacher vacancies now than in the early-1990s.

Labour also claims that it has begun to tackle the long-term recruitment problem, with a range of financial incentives for student teachers, particularly in shortage subjects, including cash bonuses, training salaries and relief from student debts.

As proof of having "turned the corner" on recruitment, Labour points to the first increase in students entering teacher training since the early-1990s - although Liberal Democrats might complain that Labour has borrowed some of their policies, such as the training salary, to achieve this.

But the most radical attempt to make teaching a more attractive career for ambitious graduates has been the reform of teachers' pay.

PAY DEALS

In a "something for something" pay deal, teachers can now apply for performance pay, offering a higher pay scale for the most able classroom teachers.

Performance pay was angrily resisted by some teachers' unions, with legal actions delaying its introductions, but it has been put in place and will raise the salaries of many teachers.

The most recent above-inflation pay settlement has also seen extra money targeted at raising starting salaries and at increasing allowances for areas of high housing costs, such as London.

While the Labour government will say that its reforms of pay have made teaching better rewarded, teachers' unions have failed to appear impressed - and have pointed to other negative factors in teaching, such as an increased workload and excessive paperwork.

The Conservatives have attacked the level of red-tape associated with performance pay.

FLEXIBILITY

Under the Conservatives' "free schools" policy, teachers would be allowed to set their own pay rates, which would allow schools with teacher shortages to increase their pay to boost recruitment.

But there have been questions raised about how such flexibility on pay will be achieved within the confines of a school budget, which already is very largely taken up by existing staff costs.

Teachers' pay in Scotland will remain unaffected by the outcome of the Westminster election, but unions in England will point to the more substantial increases recommended by an independent inquiry into teacher's pay and conditions.

The most recent pay settlement in Scotland has agreed a 21.5% pay rise for teachers over three years, in a deal which includes an increase in recruitment of staff and reduced hours in the classroom.

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