Education in crisis as new term starts
'Factory' schools vision behind the teacher shortage
By Kevin Ovenden
CHILDREN IN England and Wales are returning to school to be greeted with the most severe shortage of teachers for three decades. And schools in Scotland, which in recent years has not faced a crisis in teacher recruitment, are also reporting difficulties in covering absences and vacancies. The crisis across Britain is a direct result of the market-driven attack on comprehensive education begun under the Tories and pursued by New Labour. Even the head of the Ofsted schools inspectorate, which was at the centre of that attack, has spoken out.
Mike Tomlinson, who once said that he did "not give a monkey's toss about teachers", says teacher shortages are the worst for 36 years. A survey by the Times Educational Supplement, published last week, confirms that.
It looked at 800 secondary schools and found that one in four vacant posts were still unfilled at the end of last term. A month ago schools minister Stephen Timms claimed schools would have all the teachers they need by the beginning of the new term. But headteachers still report record numbers of unfilled posts. The problem is not confined to London and the south east of England, which are at the sharp end of the surge in house prices.
Vacancy rates in Yorkshire, Humberside and the east of England are as high as those in London. Hull, in Humberside, is the English city with the cheapest house prices. That points to the wider pressures, other than pay, that are leading to 40 percent of newly qualified teachers leaving teaching within their first three years in the job.
Those pressures flow from the stream of initiatives imposed on schools over the last decade and a half. Together they have all but destroyed any notion of education being about encouraging children to develop their capacities.
In place of that there is now a regime of testing, uninspiring methods of teaching, and competition between children, between staff and between schools. All of that is overseen by a growing mountain of bureaucracy and reinforced by privatisation, leading to profit-grabbing companies sinking their claws into the life chances of five year olds.
Private schools understand this. The Tories and New Labour exempted them from the changes imposed on state schools, where 93 percent of children are taught. Peter Lacey is the head of the Kings School, a private boarding school in Gloucester. He told the Times Educational Supplement:
"I regularly receive requests for employment from the maintained sector [normal schools] without a job being advertised, often for a lower salary. They want to come to an environment where they feel they might be treated as professionals and enjoy teaching again."
He described how activities that staff and students enjoy "have been pushed out of the maintained sector, and it's crazy. The whole relationship between pupil and teacher has been eroded. We are in an age where if it can't be measured, then it's not valued by the government. That's not good for society or for education. And it's the joy that's gone out of school that stuns me."
That is what teachers in state schools have been saying for years. Children feel it too. The assault on comprehensive education lies behind the disaffection many pupils now feel with school.
Mental health charity MIND links the growing mental health problems of children as young as six to the stress of testing and regimentation at school. Children and teachers at the Kings School are not under the same pressures. But then their parents have to be able to afford over 13,000 a year in fees. That is at the low end of private school fees-and chickenfeed for New Labour's friends in big business.
Blunkett's dire legacy
DAVID Blunkett, education secretary in the first New Labour government, says his biggest regret is that he "did not raise the morale of teachers". In fact destroying the collective spirit in staffrooms has been crucial to the government's crusade to push its vision of education.
Within days of taking office in 1997, Blunkett named and shamed 18 schools which he claimed were failing. Tony Blair insisted that Tory-appointed chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead stayed in office. He was given more powers to drag schools through intimidating Ofsted "inspections".
Blunkett then introduced the literacy and numeracy hours for primary schools. They squeezed out space for teachers to inspire children and were based on the kinds of methods that bored, and failed, a generation of pupils in the 1950s. Initiative has followed initiative. None of them has been based on any research to show their educational value.
Schools reported an increase in unnecessary paperwork over the last four years. The government's procedures for reducing paperwork required schools to fill out more bits of paper.
Remember Education Action Zones? These "partnerships" between business and schools were the government's big idea four years ago. They were supposed to bring badly needed resources into education. They failed, and have been quietly shelved. But the dogma of privatisation has not been ditched.
Whole education authorities, such as Islington in north London, have been handed to private companies. Each initiative has demoralised teachers and students.
Yet Blunkett's replacement as educa-tion secretary, Estelle Morris, has vowed to extend many of the initiatives and gimmicks he pioneered.
Pay just one issue
THE CRISIS over recruiting and retaining teachers is an indictment of the system of performance related pay introduced by New Labour. That scheme would, we were told, do away with teacher shortages by reversing the long term decline in teachers' pay compared with other professions.
It has not. Instead it has brought competition between teachers for pay rises that all should be entitled to. Blunkett spoke about breaking the collective culture among teachers as a first step to introducing the pay scheme. Now the government's worship of free market forces is backfiring.
Local management means competition between schools for resources and pupils. There are now cases across Britain of headteachers poaching teachers from neighbouring schools by offering higher pay. Even schools that have managed to recruit face the upheaval of ever greater staff turnover. Some schools will be starting this week with over one in three staff new in their posts.
The crisis puts teachers in a very strong position. It means they can fight collectively to win the pay they deserve. Most importantly of all though, it means teachers can begin to fight to reverse the attacks on comprehensive education which are making education a misery for both children and teachers.