Open the floodgates and let heads spend the money Mr Brown has handed out

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Without the kind of mobilisation of a whole society usually reserved for wartime, it is difficult to see how the Blair Government could possibly have lived up to its overblown rhetoric on education, education, education. Yet to be beginning the new school year with the worst teacher shortages for more than 30 years seems to be moving backwards.

This is unfair, because the central difficulty is that the professional competence and social standing of an entire class of public employees, namely teachers, cannot be raised much in the space of four short years. Some welcome reform has taken place, including measures to pay good teachers more and to accelerate recruitment from a wider pool of candidates. At a time of full employment, however, such belated and slow-acting measures are to little avail.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, has little choice but to slog away at the underlying causes of teacher shortages. They are, as Chris Woodhead rightly said yesterday: unruly children, bureaucratic interference and low pay. He omitted a fourth cause: his own vilification of teachers during his time as chief inspector of schools. He was right about the numbers of useless teachers and much else besides, but managed to be right in ways which got up the noses of most of the profession. It is to be hoped that his permanent successor, to be appointed soon, knows more tact.

Of the other causes, pay is the most important. With national salary scales, supply is out of kilter with demand, especially in the South-east. Ms Morris must do more than simply wait for the economic slowdown to ease demand for graduates. (Although that is a grim silver lining to the news that City firms are laying off graduate recruits on sabbatical.) And she should resist the old statist temptations to tinker with ideas such as subsidised housing. What is needed is more freedom for head teachers to pay their staff what they think is needed to recruit, retain and motivate them, within a budget which reflects regional variations in pay levels. Performance-related pay was a step in the right direction, but too bureaucratic, centralised and slow.

The overall pay bill in education can and must rise. Indeed, it is mainly the failure to employ enough teachers which accounts for the Department for Education's £1.4bn underspend last year. It is typical of the inflexibility of the public sector, however, that this money has not been diverted into buildings, resources and non-teaching staff. The employment of more classroom assistants, administrative staff and mentors is likely to be a feature of next week's White Paper on secondary schools. But we should not have had to wait so long for a policy which will both allow teachers to do more and make their jobs more attractive.

The other causes of teacher shortages are harder to tackle. Most government initiatives are sound in themselves, but give the impression that teachers cannot be trusted to do their job. This is related to the despair felt by many dedicated teachers in inner-city schools that their work is unvalued and unrecognised in a system too geared to league tables. League tables in turn are related to the problem of discipline. Schools have an incentive simply to dump disruptive or poor-performing pupils by expelling them – a tendency the Government tried to reverse by diktat, thus leaving heads with no final disciplinary sanction. A more balanced policy is now in place, including better provision for "excluded" pupils, but the behavioural oddities of our children are a matter of complex dysfunction in British society rather than simply in schools.

It is profoundly disappointing that our education system should appear to be in crisis four years after the election of a government pledged to make reform its number one priority. However, it should by now be obvious that one issue dear to the hearts of Labour activists, namely the wickedness of private education, is a sideshow.

Private schools may perpetuate social division in Britain, but their success is now more a symptom of the under-performance of the state sector than a cause of it. The tax advantages of charitable status for (some) private schools is a disgrace, but largely irrelevant in relation to the billions of pounds already available to the Department for Education to spend on the 93 per cent of children at state schools.

What is important is to set those schools free to spend the huge amounts of extra money allocated by Gordon Brown to education. In successive Budgets, he has allowed small trickles of money to flow directly to head teachers, while the Department for Education acts as a dam to hold the rest back. It is time to open the floodgates.