Australian 'army' of teachers called up to avert crisis

Employers trawl the globe to fill vacancies but pupils may still suffer as recruits often sign on for one term only
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Andrew Hayes is one of a small army of supply teachers from Australia being snapped up by schools desperate to fill vacancies.

Andrew Hayes is one of a small army of supply teachers from Australia being snapped up by schools desperate to fill vacancies.

Mr Hayes, 25, had the pick of jobs teaching in London when he arrived from Melbourne in January as a newly qualified teacher after finishing a post-graduate training course.

He moved between several comprehensives before settling on Chiswick Community School in west London, where he will start another term as a maths teacher today, saving money so he can travel in Europe. He has had his pick of jobs, such is the demand for maths teachers in London.

It is the ideal way to see the world and, for many schools, the ready labour of teachers from far-flung places is essential to fill their classrooms.

Schools across the capital and elsewhere are increasingly looking overseas to fill shortages in the classroom. This week more than 20 Australians will start work in Croydon, south London, after four headteachers flew down under to search for recruits in an effort called Operation Kangaroo. Other boroughs and some of Britain's leading supply agencies have launched searchesfor staff across the English-speaking world, and many inner-city schools rely on temporary staff from Australia and New Zealand.

Headteachers claim the situation is at its worst since the late 1980s, when some children were sent home because there was no one to teach them. This year's problems do not match that crisis, but heads warn that increasing numbers of classes will be taught by temporary staff, some lacking the specialist subject qualifications to do the job.

The shortage is at its most acute in inner London, where high living costs and difficult urban schools discourage potential staff But heads warn that the problem is spreading to affluent rural and suburban neighbourhoods.

Ministers maintain that there is little problem in recruiting staff from Australia or New Zealand, who are regarded as well-trained and used to an education system not unlike that in England. But heads say the difficulty is less that teachers are from the other side of the world, and more that children's schooling can suffer when they have a string of different teachers in a year.

Chris King, head of education at the recruitment agency TimePlan, which helped to organise Croydon's search for Australian staff, insists the shortage of teachers is a global problem, in an increasingly global market for staff. He said: "This year has been worse than any year in the past 10 years. We are looking at a hugely complicated set of circumstances. Every child will have a teacher because that's what normally happens. Schools will make things work and a crisis will be averted. By the time you get to the second or third week of September people will be saying 'what crisis', but there will be teachers there not qualified to teach the subject."

Ministers have tackled the long-term problem of recruitment into teaching, offering training salaries of £6,000 and "golden hellos" totalling £10,000 for trainees in shortage subjects. Last week David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, doubled the number of on-the-job training places available for London schools and is encouraging heads with specific recruitment problems to train their own staff. The package has produced "unprecedented" increases in applications for teacher training, even in hard-to-fill subjects such as maths, languages and science. But such measures will take time to work through.

Meanwhile in Chiswick, Andrew Hayes is looking forward to the new term, but his plans are uncertain. "I told the school I could not commit to a whole year's contract because I don't know what I am going to be doing," he said.

"I know the kids and they know me now. If I left I might feel I was letting them down. I would feel guilty if I left at Christmas, but I have told the school. It is hard on the kids though if supply teachers get up and leave. The kids don't have a say."