Harsh words that fuelled a crisis

For years, teachers have been pilloried, underpaid and roundly criticised by politicians on all sides. No wonder recruitment's going badly
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The Independent Online

What makes a teacher cry? The answer, according to a letter which arrived recently in The Independent's offices, is a pat on the back from an Ofsted inspector. The letter also posed the question "Why"? Why burst into tears when someone tells you that you are in the top 10 per cent of your profession? Would a doctor? Would a managing director? Would a solicitor? Yet we know that the teacher observed by our reader is not alone. Anecdotal evidence tells us excellent teachers often become emotional when inspectors tells them they are excellent.

What makes a teacher cry? The answer, according to a letter which arrived recently in The Independent's offices, is a pat on the back from an Ofsted inspector. The letter also posed the question "Why"? Why burst into tears when someone tells you that you are in the top 10 per cent of your profession? Would a doctor? Would a managing director? Would a solicitor? Yet we know that the teacher observed by our reader is not alone. Anecdotal evidence tells us excellent teachers often become emotional when inspectors tells them they are excellent.

Softies, critics may mutter. Can't take the strain. Not used to the sort of accountability and stress which are the daily lot of most of us and which have loomed much larger in teachers' lives since the arrival of Ofsted inspections. Should stiffen their upper lips.

Step back a moment. Is it likely that a 450,000-strong profession can be branded as over-sensitive, defensive wimps who cannot cope with the strains of an inspection? Good teachers' post-inspection blues cannot be dismissed so easily. They may hold the key to the biggest educational challenge facing the Government: how to recruit more teachers.

Teachers cry because they have been told for more than a decade by politicians and some sections of the media that they are mostly pretty useless, don't expect enough of pupils and are ostrich-like about change. Even when they point to rising passes in tests and exams, someone leaps up and says that it's all a fraud. The exams are getting easier.

Doctors, lawyers and police have sometimes had a bad press but teachers are in a league of their own. Which group has the distinction of being told by a minister that there will be "zero tolerance" of incompetence among its ranks? And which group has been told exactly how many incompetents there are - this time by Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools?

Public denigration of teachers starts at the top. The Prime Minister has taken swipes at the whole system: yes, he said, last year, he understood why people didn't want to send their children to inner-city schools. Last month he argued that comprehensives needed to change from their old "one size fits all" model. Only at this year's party conference did he forswear his customary sideswipe at teachers and praise them for being the best in the world.

Even if he forswears attacks on teachers for the rest of the Government's term of office, it is probably too late. The tradition begun by the Conservatives of criticising teachers while subjecting them to an unprecedented hail of initiatives has left them feeling unloved and threatened. A generation of young people has absorbed the message that teaching is a job in which you are liable to be pilloried. And here, unsurprisingly, comes the recruitment crisis.

Like the fuel crisis, it has caught the Government unawares. Like the former, it is far from being entirely of New Labour's making: the zero tolerance song has been sung before, give or take a catchphrase or two, by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. And just as the fuel crisis undermined the Government's credibility, so the recruitment crisis threatens to undermine the big improvements in educational standards which David Blunkett is well on the way to securing.

Take some new, uncomfortable facts. Last month, a report from Liverpool University's Alan Smithers supplied a variation on the old joke about the vicar in search of a curate ("I'll take anything that breathes."). It said that headteachers were managing to put bodies in front of classes but only "by drastically lowering their expectations". Flashback to the Sixties and you'll find another recruitment crisis when low-calibre staff were taken on - resulting in educational shortcomings which ministers are still tackling today.

This month, even the "bodies in front of classes" policy began to collapse. Two inner-city schools put pupils on a four-day week because of teacher shortages. Last week, a new set of figures showed that though applications for teacher training were up 50 per cent, the majority of those coming forward were unsuitable. In maths and the physical sciences, the position was worse than last year.

Ministers will protest that they did see the shortages coming and set out to tackle them. Their first year saw the launch of a five-year £10m campaign to attract teachers and Mr Blair brought in Alec Reed, chairman of Reed Executive, the employment agency, to investigate the issue. Then came the bursaries from shortage subjects.

But the true extent of the shortfall seems to have hit them only in March when training salaries for teachers were introduced in the middle of the admissions cycle as panic-stricken politicians realised that this year's applications for teacher training were so low that only drastic measures would stave off disaster.

Their second string of defence is that the £2,000 pay bonus for those teachers who meet new criteria, delayed, but due to be finalised tomorrow, will prove a big enough inducement. The best teachers will be put on a fast track where they can earn even more as part of a performance-related pay package.

If the first key to recruitment is public image, the second is hard cash. Money is a measure of status. Is it an accident that teachers in highly successful schools, be it Thomas Telford City Technology College (state) or Eton (private), are paid over the odds? And at the technology college they have a four-day teaching week and a day for preparation and marking.

Tomorrow's pay package is a start but goes nowhere near far enough. Starting salaries at leading independent schools are at least £5,000 more than in state schools. At schools like Corby Community College, the former failing school, where teacher shortages have put pupils on a four-day week, they will have to be even higher.

Meanwhile, we need to learn to talk about teachers so that they can accept an accolade with a smile rather than a tear.

judith.judd@independent.co.uk

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