Small classes and not much bumf

State school teachers are flocking to the independent sector. But, says Hilary Wilce, it has problems too
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The Independent Online

Sarah Winter recently moved from working in a primary school in east London to a prep school in north London. "And it's great. I'm finally getting to do the job I was trained to do. In my last job, I was lucky if I spent 10 per cent of my time teaching."

Sarah Winter recently moved from working in a primary school in east London to a prep school in north London. "And it's great. I'm finally getting to do the job I was trained to do. In my last job, I was lucky if I spent 10 per cent of my time teaching."

There, she had a class of 26 children, many with learning and behaviour difficulties. Now she has only 15, plus a classroom assistant to help her. She follows the national curriculum, but not slavishly. She has less bumf to deal with, isn't battling with such a huge range of abilities, feels trusted to get on and do her job, and even has time to teach children one-on-one.

Although she is earning slightly more than before, it isn't the money that makes the difference. It's the fact she no longer has to spend so much time on paperwork and classroom management. "Money used to be a factor, but now it's these other things that attract people," says Peter Gummer, director in charge of recruitment and consultancy at the long-established educational trust Gabbitas-Thring, which places teachers in private schools. Teachers want to teach, not police, he says, and last year more than 500 of them joined private schools from state ones, while only 167 moved back.

Despite this, independent schools face the same difficulties as maintained schools when it comes to attracting and keeping good staff. While the Etons, Westminsters and Cheltenham Ladies Colleges of this world are never likely to go short of high-quality applicants, schools further down the private school pecking order are increasingly struggling to fill vacancies. "The field's more than halved in the last nine months to a year," says Gummer. "We'd normally expect to have 40 to 50 candidates for a job, from which you'd easily get a good short list of six or eight, but it isn't like that any more." People are either leaving teaching, he says, or are less mobile than before.

Particularly thin on the ground are science, maths, computer and modern languages specialists, plus teachers willing to take up the wide-ranging, day-and-night demands of senior posts in boarding schools. A survey carried out among nearly 300 senior independent schools last year by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' Schools Association, found maths mentioned as a difficult area of recruitment by 33 per cent of schools, physics by 24 per cent, and information and communications technology by 21 per cent.

Then there is the problem of housing costs: independent schools tend to be in wealthy areas, where living costs can be prohibitive. As a result, some schools are buying or renting staff accommodation. "My governors have now bought a house for my successor, should they want it," says Carol Daly, head of St Albans High School. That way, she says, the school will get a wider pick of good applicants without having candidates drop out because they can't afford to move.

Although she has recently appointed an excellent new head of modern languages, and of art, Daly is finding that the field of candidates for jobs is getting smaller. However, she does not have to battle to fill the same amount of vacancies as some heads of maintained schools. Many of her teachers have been with the school for 10 years or more, reflecting the more settled nature of much independent school employment.

The HMC/GSA survey found that two-thirds of schools reported fewer applicants for posts than previously, and nearly half said the overall quality of applicants was dropping. To attract and keep good staff, four out of 10 schools offered salaries above those of competing schools, and a quarter offered to help teachers with removal expenses. Many also offered staff perks such as reduced school fees for teachers' children and private health care.

Chris Tongue, headmaster of St John's School, Leatherhead, and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference professional development sub-committee, points out that while the survey shows that many schools are increasingly experiencing difficulty in finding good teachers, it also shows how they are managing to avoid the worst effects of teacher shortages. "They are using their independence, and the flexibility that comes with it, to offer attractive packages. This is not just a matter of more pay, but includes conditions of service, opportunities to take on a wide range of responsibilities, and effective support for the teaching role."

The Independent Schools Council is stepping up its efforts to attract more young people into teaching. One way it does this is to emphasise to newly qualified teachers that they can complete their induction in independent schools. In the past, many young graduates have gone to work in independent schools without professional qualifications, and private schools are still free to employ anyone provided the person they want to employ is not registered as a danger to children, nor has a criminal record. But most teachers working in the independent sector now have full qualifications and the ISC's induction panel oversees the induction of more young teachers than any other body recognised by the DfES.

Independent schools are also working with the Teacher Training Agency to encourage new graduates to think of teaching. For the past three years a joint "Why Teach?" presentation has been touring UK universities, introducing students to lively young teachers from both the maintained and the independent sectors, as well as offering them a chance to talk to teacher trainers and other specialists.

"About 80 per cent of those who come along are committed to the job," says Chris Evers, one of the independent schools consultants, "but we can help them fill in the gaps. They might ask things about whether their degree is relevant to the training course, and about workload. It's a good chance for them to hear about it from the people who are doing it, and to talk informally to the experts."