Why today's strikers have a just cause

The action taken by teachers could be solved by helping them to buy their own homes, writes Joe Hallgarten
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The Independent Online

The weekend starts two days early for many of the capital's pupils today, as NUT members take a day of strike action to campaign for a one-third increase in London weighting. Far from "being held hostage", as some have put it, pupils will probably feel the opposite.

The weekend starts two days early for many of the capital's pupils today, as NUT members take a day of strike action to campaign for a one-third increase in London weighting. Far from "being held hostage", as some have put it, pupils will probably feel the opposite.

There is a clear problem with staffing London's schools. The word "crisis", used too liberally to describe teacher shortages, is probably justified there. Vacancies are far higher than elsewhere, and the figures are masked by London's reliance on supply teachers, in charge of 20 per cent of lessons in some boroughs.

The age profile of London's teachers is peculiar: a large cadre of young teachers who train there but leave the city, the profession, or both, as it is impossible to buy a home; and a shrinking group of older teachers who have taught in London for decades and bought homes when they were affordable. There is a growing shortfall in middle management, reflected in the low number of senior-post applications.

So the strikers' concerns are justified; during the Nineties, with fast-rising incomes in the capital's graduate-sector recruitment market, the weighting has not attracted sufficient teachers. But wider public-policy considerations lead to other conclusions. Such a large London weighting would amount to a regional pay policy for teachers. Regional disparities in income are already increasing – if trends continue, GDP per capita in the North-east will be less than half of London's within two decades. Teachers form an important part of any region's economy, and such an increase would contribute to an already overheated South-east.

The main problem with retaining teachers in London is a housing one. Increased salaries would lead to more money chasing the same housing stock, and even a one-third rise would be insufficient to allow most teachers to enter the housing market. A more useful protest by teachers might be against some of the greenfield planning restrictions. A more appropriate and far cheaper solution would be an immediate, radical expansion of the starter-homes initiative. Subsidised travel and non-pecuniary benefits such as gym use, childcare and leisure discounts could also be effective without increasing regional pay disparities.

It is interesting that the strike's organisers are the same teachers who strongly oppose the freedoms about to be given to successful schools to offer more flexible pay and conditions. The obvious danger is that schools that earn their autonomy, and are therefore probably already more attractive to pupils and teachers, will use these freedoms to attract the best teachers, further widening the gaps in performance between the best and worst schools.

However, innovative use of terms and conditions could enable London's schools to develop targeted incentives aimed, for instance, at the huge number of teaching émigrés who live or work in London.

We also need to accept that, although pay is obviously important, other factors need addressing. Ironically, most London teachers leave teaching for jobs with lower pay. Workload is a well documented turn-off, but lack of space for creativity is an emerging cause of teacher flight.

London's schools should have unique selling points as exciting places to teach and learn. If well managed and resourced, the growing diversity of the city's school population is an asset. London's pupils have access to learning opportunities on their doorstep that schools across England can only envy. Clearly, creativity depends on certain conditions that can only be fostered by national policy and local leadership. Yet London's schools have the potential to market themselves as creative hubs of both their city and their profession. They can only do this through new forms of engagement with London's institutions and communities, and through a city-wide approach to learning – difficult with 33 atomised boroughs. After all, it takes a city...

The writer is an education researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research

education@independent.co.uk

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