Money for teachers must be channelled into the inner cities, Mr Blunkett

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The Government must hope that it is darkest just before the dawn, although the rest of us are entitled to retain a degree of scepticism. At the start of this school year, teacher shortages are the worst for a decade. That confirms how appallingly difficult it is to achieve real improvements in a complex public service such as education - even for a government as rhetorically committed as this one.

The Government must hope that it is darkest just before the dawn, although the rest of us are entitled to retain a degree of scepticism. At the start of this school year, teacher shortages are the worst for a decade. That confirms how appallingly difficult it is to achieve real improvements in a complex public service such as education - even for a government as rhetorically committed as this one.

Tony Blair and his Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, have done many things right. Standards in most schools are inching forward. Infant class-sizes have been cut. Teachers may complain about the quantity of papers that they are asked to read and inwardly digest, but most of the Government's initiatives are soundly enough based.

Mr Blunkett also has the distinction of being the first Education Secretary in living memory to take seriously the issue of raising the standing of the teaching profession. The last time there was a teacher shortage, in 1988-9, when many children were sent home because there was no one to teach them, it was solved not by government action but by the recession, which pushed people back into teaching who might otherwise have found better-paid jobs in the private sector.

This government is bringing in, from this term, a policy of selective pay rises, designed to keep good teachers in the classroom rather than lose them to admin or investment banking. It is also pumping more money into schools than most teachers and parents yet realise.

This financial year, which started in April, education is receiving 10 per cent more than in the previous year, after taking inflation into account, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. That is a substantial rise, although it comes rather late to impress the voters at an election next May, and it will take more time still to feed through into better recruitment, retention and professional self-esteem.

Indeed, one reason for this term's high number of vacancies is that schools have the money to employ extra teachers, but the supply of trained staff cannot keep up. Mr Blunkett has taken action on that front, too, offering salaries for trainee teachers; but again, it takes time.

Meanwhile, there are worrying signs from the bottom of the social heap that the worst schools in poor urban areas are proving impervious to all Mr Blunkett's attempts to level them up. Last week's GCSE results showed that only one of the Fresh Start schools, which had been closed down and reopened with a new head, staff and name, had improved. That is hardly surprising, given the huge pressure from exam league tables, which will increasingly drive informed and motivated parents away from sinking schools, ensuring that they become sink schools and stay sunk.

The Government's extra money for teachers' pay and for schools generally, while making teaching a more attractive career option in the leafy suburbs, will do little to lure the best teachers to more difficult schools, where pupils currently speed through a bewildering succession of supply teachers.

Mr Blunkett must hope that the teacher shortage is, if not quite a sign that his policies are working, at least the hop before the step and the jump forward to markedly better schools for the majority. But the Government still needs to pour more resources into the worst inner-city schools.

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