Interest-free loans to ease teacher crisis

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The Independent Online

Teachers are to be offered interest-free home loans in an attempt to avoid sending thousands of children home from school because there are not enough staff to teach them.

Teachers are to be offered interest-free home loans in an attempt to avoid sending thousands of children home from school because there are not enough staff to teach them.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, next month will announce a package of measures, including the loans from local councils, because the salaries of key workers such as teachers, nurses and firemen are insufficient to cover the cost of accommodation, particularly in London and the South-East.

London, where the average price of a house is £180,000, is the worst hit for vacancies in schools and hospitals and depends heavily on agency replacements. But towns across the country, including Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol, are also affected.

Teachers start on a salary of of about £16,000 (£18,000 in inner London) and nurses's salaries start at £15,000 a year (£17,000 in London).

Last night, parents were warned that lessons would have to be cancelled and schools moved on to four-day weeks in the coming months. Two schools have been forced to switch to a four-day week this autumn because of lack of teachers, and heads say that much worse is to come when staff absences increase with bouts of winter colds and flu.

Beechwood School in Slough said last month that most of its 580 pupils could attend only four days a week, and Corby Community College in Northamptonshire has since said that it, too, is adopting a reduced timetable. Teaching vacancies stand at record levels: according to the Secondary Heads Association, 4,000 more teachers are needed in England and Wales.

The total of recruits for training is up by only 3.8 per cent this year - and in some subjects, such as maths, the number of recruits has fallen.

Britain also needs to recruit an additional 17,000 nurses. The shortage will put the health service under considerable strain in January and February when levels of illness reach their annual peak. Last month, The Independent on Sunday reported that hospitals around Britain have been closing emergency wards because of staff shortages.

The Government's proposals to help key workers will be revealed in next month's Urban White Paper which, it is hoped, will help regenerate Britain's inner cities.

The plans will be backed with £250m of funding, spread over three years, and will include interest-free loans of up to £50,000. Ministers have also been looking at supporting other measures, including part-buy/part-rent schemes which allow low-paid workers to get a foot on the housing ladder. The cash for the scheme, known as the starter homes initiative, was earmarked in last summer's comprehensive spending review.

The high cost of accommodation in Britain is affecting a range of essential but poorly paid workers and helping to create shortages in construction, catering, public transport and secretarial work.

Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest union for teachers, said: "It's inevitable that in parts of the country children will be sent home for a period.

"Now that two schools have admitted that they have these severe problems, it's inevitable that others will take the same steps and demonstrate to the Government that it can't continue to preside over this sort of crisis."

The general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said: "I think it's very likely that even more children will be sent home in the coming months. We already have a record number of vacancies, a record number of classes being taught by supply teachers, and in the winter months, historically, teacher absences tend to grow."

The shortage will be exacerbated by the Christmas holidays, when hundreds of Australian and New Zealand freelances go home. Many London schools are heavily dependent on temporary staff who have been recruited from supply agencies.