Short of teachers, some British schools skip class

r Amid calls for action, on Wednesday the government said teacher recruitment is up.

It's morning break at Holywells, a high school in Ipswich, southeastern England.

Among the usual shrieks and clatter comes the sound of hundreds of pupils scampering home - before the school day is even half done.

For the past three weeks, rotating schedules have meant two-thirds of the school's 900 students attend the equivalent of a four-day week.

The reason? There are not enough teachers to teach them.

And while a multimillion dollar campaign by the government to recruit new teachers is showing promise, it will be some time before trainees are ready to take up chalk and marking pens. In the meantime, the shortage is becoming more acute.

It's a problem the US also faces. Over the next decade, it anticipates having to fill about 2 million vacancies in a profession many associate with high demands and low pay.

The exact size of Britain's teacher shortage is a point of hot debate. But with a well-educated workforce increasingly crucial to success in the global economy, some education advocates warn of serious consequences.

Chris Jowett, chairman of Holywells' board of governors, says the cutback on class hours was the only answer. "We gave the parents about 10 days notice."

Holywells is not alone. In October and January, two other schools in England briefly reduced their schedules. After teachers unions voted in February on whether to refuse to cover for teachers absent more than three days, two schools in Kent and another in South London had to let students out early.

At least 10 cities and counties have approved the "no cover" rule so far, paving the way for further early releases.

England's chief inspector of schools has warned that teacher shortages are contributing to a lack of academic progress among 11-to-14-year-olds, unruly behavior, and a growing disparity in achievement between top- and low-performing students.

George Debman, whose 13 year-old son Paul attends Holywells, says he is "very concerned that the kids are missing out on school work." Other parents and students express fears that even a few missed lessons could mean lower grades on national exams.

Mr. Debman says most parents blame the government rather than the school.

The British government, though preoccupied with a devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among farm animals and plans for elections in June, is working on the problem.

This week, it claimed some success in a 7 million ($10.2 million) campaign to recruit new teachers. The Graduate Teacher Training Registry reported on Wednesday that the number of applications for teacher-training courses last month were 24 percent higher than in March 2000.

Education Secretary David Blunkett said the rise showed that teaching was becoming a "more attractive profession."

Government incentives include teacher-training grants, performance-related bonuses, and $6,000 awards - known as "golden hellos" - for new teachers in subjects where the shortage is most severe, such as math and science.

Many such incentives are also being used in the US.

But according to John Howson, managing director of Education Data Surveys, a consulting firm, the government failed for years to address the problem until it became "a crisis.

"[Teacher] recruitment targets have been missed for the past two decades," he says.

Professor Howson cites three main reasons for the shortage: "money, respect, and conditions."

Schools like Holywells - which is located in an impoverished area and failed a recent government inspection on teaching standards - have particular trouble filling vacancies.

Howson says that while the government's financial inducements have led to a boost in teacher-training applicants, it is unclear whether this will translate into graduates with a long-term commitment to the profession.

In the meantime, a school in Thurrock, just outside London, has tried a novel, even desperate approach to find new teachers.

The school sent four pupils wearing "Teach me please" buttons to a local supermarket.

Three hours later, they emerged with four candidates. Two were subsequently hired as substitute teachers, and two became permanent staff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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