Teaching in some of our most challenging schools is not easy. Despite the rhetoric, in some parts of Britain there is a huge divide between the haves and have-nots. One by-product of the growing inequality that has been all too evident in the past 20 years is the despondency and sense of worthlessness that those at the bottom feel as even modest lifestyles have moved out of reach. The lack of self-worth of individuals and communities, the sense of despair, of alienation and powerlessness also need to be addressed. Without doubt, many of Britain's schools and teachers have been key players in attempting to tackle many of these symptoms.
Schools can, and often do, play a major role in helping to improve the life chances of our young people. It is our schools that are often agents for change in their local community, it is our schools that are increasingly agents for increased social mobility. But there is a problem. Many of our teachers, like others working in the public-sector, are often de-motivated, disaffected, poorly paid and working in wholly unsatisfactory conditions. It is no surprise therefore that both the recruitment and the retention of teachers is a huge and growing problem. This is particularly the case in inner-city areas where a significant number of schools serve communities that are characterised by high levels of unemployment, low earnings and higher than average numbers of single parents.
Teaching in these schools is more difficult than it is in others, but - and this point is crucial - they are the very schools that need the most able, the most competent and the most caring teachers. At present, teachers who "choose" to work in these types of schools are rewarded by enormous stress, league tables that imply "low" performance is the same as "poor" performance and conditions of service that have not changed (that means not improved) for the last 50 years.
It is in this context that the government, committed as it is to extending opportunity for all, has introduced student top-up fees that could well result in a student accruing debts of up to £20,000 by the time they graduate. What effect will this have on teacher recruitment in five to 10 years time? What hope for the most "challenged" schools in recruiting the well qualified, the motivated and the inspirational? Therefore, if the government is to stave off massive shortfalls in teacher recruitment, if it is to continue with its moral crusade to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation then it should seriously consider writing off the debts of all new teachers who choose to work in our most "challenged" schools. For example: if a student graduates with a £20,000 debt it could be written off at the rate of £2,000 per year over a 10-year period (so helping to secure retention rates).
If we are to continue to reduce both the reasons for and effects of social exclusion, then the role currently played by our schools and teachers must not be underestimated. If steps are not taken to remove the barriers that prevent good graduates from applying to become teachers, let alone staying for more than a couple of years, then the vicious circle that haunts the urban poor will remain - if not widen. Expand the numbers going on to university by all means and give the HE sector the additional funding it desperately needs, but provide all the incentives possible in order to get our brightest and best working with our most desperate and disadvantaged.