November 30 1999

Politicians are failing at school, says Michael McMahon

Why teachers are still going absent

According to the Government's recruiting slogan: "Nobody forgets a good teacher." But, after a £1.5 million advertising campaign, no one wants to be one, either.

Almost no one, anyway. Official figures released this month reveal that applications to be trained to teach in primary schools are 27 per cent lower than at this time last year, and 50 per cent lower than in 1995.

Recruitment of secondary school trainees has been in free-fall for years, and while the "golden hellos" that the Government has been reduced to offering in shortage subjects such as maths and science did bring about a brief flurry of interest, it has more or less fizzled out. Last year's increases were from such a pitiful base as to be insignificant, and maths applications have fallen once again - by 20 per cent. Chemistry (down 27 per cent) is even worse. Modern languages are in the same boat.

But that's not the half of it. Of those who do qualify as teachers, one in three hasn't set foot in a classroom twelve months later. The number of serving teachers retiring early through ill health is now running at 5,000 a year; it was 2,000 in 1990. And as the population of secondary schoolchildren increases - by 300,000 in the next six years - the average age of those who are teaching them continues to creep nearer to retirement.

One in five teachers is now over 50, and if the Government hadn't changed the rules so that they are no longer allowed to ask for the pension parachute they have paid for, many of those would have baled out, too. If the ministers responsible for recruitment were to be judged and paid by their performance - as they insist teachers must soon be - they wouldn't be tearing open their pay packets to find the size of their bonuses, but to find out whether they had yet got their P45s.

One of the reasons that fewer people turn to teaching is that they have to find their own living expenses for the extra year it takes to qualify, at a time when they are already carrying three years of debt. Another year of study is another year without pay, and it would appear that the earning power gained by qualifying as a teacher is not enough to compensate for it.

Even if it were (and the Gov- ernment claims that, under performance-related pay, it will be - for "good" teachers, at least) it is not money that has always drawn the best people to teaching, but a sense of vocation. But the language of learning has changed. The word "vocation" is no longer part of its vocabulary, for now "teachers are made, not born", as the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency recently put it.

Teachers are encouraged to think of themselves as professionals. But to qualify as one is not to earn the right to profess an art with independent confidence, but to be admitted to a suffocating system of line-management in which pre-scripted lessons are delivered so that outcomes can be measured to demonstrate that ever-moving targets have been met.

Young people making career choices know what life as such a professional is like: they have recent experience of school. They have seen the stresses their own teachers endured. When they hear that the Government has introduced a free telephone helpline for teachers for whom everything has got too much, they don't think how generously teachers are looked after by their employers, but wonder why anyone would want to embark on a career in which such support is necessary.

When they hear tub-thumping politicians demonstrating their determination to bring about national salvation by eradicating inadequate teachers, the prospect of joining a perpetually self-purging profession fills them with foreboding rather than pride. However brilliantly they begin, they fear that if they burn out they'll be given the boot.

And every time they hear Her Majesty's unassailable Inspector of Schools open his mouth, they must wonder whether they want to spend a life with that toad, Ofsted, on their backs.

This recruitment crisis was inevitable. Now that our politicians have redefined education as little more than preparation for work - the training of drudges, by drudges, for drudgery - it is hardly surprising that so few young people are keen to spend more time in such an atmosphere than they have to.

That might be an awkward thought for the present, but it surely offers hope for the long term.

Michael McMahon taught in an inner-city school for six years before quitting earlier this year. He had previously taught in the independent sector.

Next page: Richard Morrison

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