Schools face four-day weeks over staff crisis

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The Independent Online

Pupils at some Essex schools may only be able to attend classes four days a week if teaching vacancies are not filled, senior officials with the local authority said yesterday in the strongest warning yet that staff shortages are damaging children's education.

Pupils at some Essex schools may only be able to attend classes four days a week if teaching vacancies are not filled, senior officials with the local authority said yesterday in the strongest warning yet that staff shortages are damaging children's education.

One secondary school in Essex was only able to offer a full timetable because staff volunteered to give up all their non-teaching time, while in another, one in 10 teachers were from Australia, council officials said.

The county council, one of the largest education authorities in England, warned of severe recruitment problems in a letter to David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education.

Paul Lincoln, the county's director of learning services, said headteachers were facing problems at all levels in primary and secondary schools. "A significant number of headteachers have told us that they have recently been forced to appoint candidates who only two years ago they would not even have shortlisted," he said.

"Schools make valiant efforts to ensure classes are taught, but this increasingly results in classes being covered by teachers whose skills are not widely matched with the needs of the school. Many vacancies are being covered by supply teachers or other teachers on short-term contract."

The warning comes after a survey by secondary headteachers found 67 teachers were working in Essex but had no teaching qualifications.

Nigel Hunt, a senior education officer in Essex, said no school had immediate plans for a four-day week. But, he warned, "Unless things improve, ultimately, four-day weeks might be needed. We are just trying to contribute to the debate. We think it is the biggest issue in terms of quality in schools that has faced Essex in recent years."

The problem of teacher shortages extends well beyond Essex. John Wells, the headteacher of Headlands Secondary School in Swindon, said he had drawn up plans to send some children home for one afternoon a week if he did not fill three vacancies before next week. "If I don't manage to recruit enough staff over this holiday, I will have to send some of the lower school children home for two classes a week," he said.

Heads in the London borough of Barnet wrote to parents before Christmas expressing deep concern over staff shortages, while in Bracknell, Berkshire, education officers urged schools to consider breaching government class-size limits rather than send children home.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned that the system faced possible "meltdown". "Alarm bells are sounding for the Government because part-time schooling will be as politically damaging as patients in hospital corridors waiting for operations or lengthening hospital waiting lists," he said.

* Children who chat to each other and sing songs together at nursery do better at school than those who spend most of their time on the three Rs, a leading expert on the under-fives will say today. Professor Kathy Sylva, of Oxford University's department of psychology, will warn the Government against making education for the under-fives too rigid.

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