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12 October 2015

While teacher shortages threaten our schooling, the government is obsessing with free schools

Rather than worrying about the name of the place that teaches children, the government should focus on the shortage of people to teach them in the first place. 

By lucy powell

This week new analysis was published that reveals the Government is set to miss its recruitment target for teachers for the fourth year in a row. Overall, applications to teach have fallen by almost 21,000 in one year. It is subjects that are key to boosting our country’s competitiveness, such as English and Maths, which are among the worst hit. Some headteachers are saying they have never known it so bad.

You would imagine that tackling this critical problem would be at the top of the list of priorities for the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary’s programme for schools over the next Parliament. The urgency of the situation cannot possibly have caught them off guard. Experts within the education sector have been warning for years that the Government’s approach to teacher recruitment, including doing down the profession, increasing workload, and completely failing to properly handle rapid changes to the teacher training model, was storing up trouble for our schools.

Now, with schools facing simultaneous challenges of falling applications into teaching, missed recruitment targets and the highest number of teachers quitting the profession in two decades, you would be fooled for thinking that David Cameron and Nicky Morgan would understand the importance of getting to grips with this crisis. And yet, instead of a comprehensive and robust plan of action to deal with the shortages that schools up and down the country are struggling with, significantly the Tories marked the beginning of the new academic year with an announcement to open 18 more free schools.

On the one hand, we shouldn’t be surprised. Over the last five years, despite the fact that time and time again it has been shown that free Schools are not a panacea and that they can fail with disastrous consequences, the Tories have not wavered from their obsession with them. I find it remarkable that in the face of all the evidence that says what actually matters most is the quality of teaching in a school, David Cameron chooses instead to be fanatical about the name of an institution above its door. Indeed he is so fixated, that just this summer his Government amended the regulations so that any new school will now be legally classed as a free school – all so in 2020 he can say he has met his target of 500 more. That the Prime Minister considers this the priority for Britain’s education system in the modern, competitive world is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

And while the Tories tinker around with whether a school is called an academy or a free school or whatever, they offer simply no serious solution to the immense challenges facing our schools. How will the Government reverse the falling number of applications to teach, which are affecting schools at the same time as the their number of pupils increases? Where is David Cameron’s plan for raising standards in the one in five academies that are currently failing their Ofsted inspections? Why is the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the peers being allowed to widen and what will the Government do to reverse this?

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For what the Prime Minister seems not to have grasped is that at the end of the day it won’t matter one jot whether a school is a free school, academy, or maintained by the local authority, if there are not enough maths teachers to teach in it. The Tories may well bury their heads in the sand over the teacher recruitment crisis. But if it comes at the expense of the next generation’s education, it will be our children who suffer and the country that pays the price.