Why nobody wants to teach

Teacher shortages, highlighted in an interview last Tuesday by no less a person than the Chief Inspector of Schools, are nothing new, though the two biggest crises of the past 30 years occurred under Tory governments. By now, ministers and officials should be prepared for them. An economic boom increases the availability of jobs in better-paid and more highly esteemed professions. It encourages people to abandon the relatively safe option of teaching and to take risks. It persuades some women teachers, whose partners' jobs, wages and rising bonuses seem secure, that they can leave the struggles of the classroom for something less demanding, if worse-paid, or even for full-time child-rearing. It sends house prices soaring, making it hard for teachers to buy property in London and the south-east. It encourages governments to relax the public purse-strings and allow schools to employ more teachers, thus increasing demand at the very moment supply is falling (a factor now accentuated by rising pupil numbers).

None of this ought to be rocket science for a political and administrative class that has been telling everybody for 25 years that you cannot buck the markets. On the pay front, it is doubtful that any government, in the short term, can do much about it, except wait for the next recession. Teachers cannot receive high pay, simply because there are too many of them. Ultimately, the only solution - one to which the government is very slowly moving, without daring to tell anyone - is to cut the number of teachers while making more use of information technology and delegating routine tasks to less highly trained assistants. This could allow the creation of a true graduate elite profession, attracted not only by dramatically increased salaries, but also by the chance to lord it over a caste of lesser mortals, rather as doctors lord it over nurses. New Labour deserves credit for its inventiveness in bringing learning assistants, mentors and so on into schools, particularly in deprived areas.

But they show few signs of boosting morale or reducing teachers' workload, because there are so many countervailing forces. Teachers have been squeezed from both ends of the ideological spectrum: from liberals who are so mindful of children's rights that any form of disciplinary sanction becomes uncertain, and from conservatives who demand a return to school uniforms and rows of desks; from the left which believes that working-class children are being cheated, and from the right which believes that standards are being diluted. As a result, teachers have suffered a huge loss of autonomy, the very characteristic that most defines professionalism. Not only is the curriculum now laid down in fine detail; so, in effect, are teaching methods, in primary schools particularly. As well as volumes of paperwork generated by tests, league tables, inspections, performance-related pay and so on, teachers are plagued by the unwelcome interventions of advisers, consultants, psychologists and other experts. These people could themselves help solve the staffing crisis if they actually taught children instead of telling others how to do it.

All this might just about be tolerable, if only teachers could retain a degree of public esteem. But politicians regularly trot into the studios of the Today programme to bemoan "failing" schools and "low" standards. Do they imagine that parents and pupils never listen to Radio 4? Are they surprised that teachers are often treated with contempt, and even physical violence? Why should children think it worth learning from teachers who are publicly described as rubbish?

To ask these questions is not to suggest that the answers are easy. It is right that schools should be under pressure to do better and it is true that low expectations are endemic (which is simply a pompous way of saying that getting children to work harder is itself very hard work). But ministers have to give more thought to their game plan. There is no point in inspectors hunting down weak and ineffectual teachers (weakness and ineffectuality always being relative) if they simply have to fill the gaps with itinerant Australians or give maths classes to historians. There is no point in offering high grants for training or golden hellos for recruits, since these attract more of those who enter teaching because they can't, for the moment, think of anything better to do. And turning over schools to private firms is like changing the officers on the Titanic after it has hit the iceberg: a mere diversion from any salvage operations that might be under way.

The time for a ruthless drive to raise school standards and weed out the subcompetent is when bright school-leavers and bright graduates are storming the school gates clamouring to enter the profession. Teaching stands too low in the pecking orders of social cachet, professional satisfaction and material reward. Alter that, and you alter everything.

The Sun upstages D H Lawrence

When the British nanny state finally allowed Lady Chatterley's Lover to be published, there was intense debate on whether, in one passage, D H Lawrence had intended us to understand that Connie and Mellors had enjoyed anal sex. Even an ambiguous description was then thought daring. Now, buggery is out in the open, everywhere. The Independent on Sunday describes it as "just another artistic cliche"; Mark Ravenhill, writer of a new play at the National Theatre, promises "plenty of buggery", shown as "amazingly enjoyable". There is more. You may think that the Sun's search for Britain's "top bottom" and the growing use of bottom cleavage in advertising and fashion are just about, well, bottoms. Not so, the Guardian's women page helpfully explains. This is "all about anal sex" in which women cannot take full pleasure, because they are not "physically kitted out". Liberals, the writer concludes, must decide where they stand. Yes, indeed. Who said there were no great causes left?