UK recruitment crisis tests Blair's policy pledge

UK recruitment crisis tests Blair's policy pledge

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair is learning the hard way that money does not always buy success.

His Treasury coffers bulging after two years of careful fiscal management, Blair early last year launched a multi-billion pound investment programme in Britain's flagging public services.

But almost a year later, government departments continue to fall woefully short of spending targets and Blair has been branded the "Great Pretender" by his main political rival for failing to deliver on his promise of better schools, health care, transport and policing.

While Blair comfortably leads opinion polls ahead of a general election widely expected to take place in May, his government is dogged by reports of schools closing one day a week and classrooms of up to 90 pupils due to lack of staff.

Union leaders say that poor pay, low morale and excessive bureaucracy are making it almost impossible to attract and retain staff to fill the thousands of jobs needed to meet Blair's pledge of vastly improved public services.

"Young people simply don't want to become teachers any more. The government's got a serious problem on its hands," said Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

Blair this month defended his government's record, arguing that two decades of neglect by previous Conservative governments could not be put right overnight and promising "the largest investment in public services Britain has seen" if he won a second term of office.


Despite the announcement of an extra 50 billion pounds ($74.46 billion) in government spending over three years last March, the government will fall about four to five billion pounds short of its target at the end of this fiscal year.

"That's not a lot in terms of the overall spending amount but it is very large compared with the amount of extra spending which has been earmarked," said Andrew Dilnot, director of the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies.

And although government departments are now awash with funds from the Treasury, they are finding it increasingly difficult to find the staff they need to improve services.

Inflation busting pay rises recently awarded to nurses were dubbed by unions an "Oliver Twist offer" which would do nothing to shrink the 20,000 vacancies in the health sector.

Even with the 3.7 percent pay rise, a newly qualified nurse would earn just 15,445 pounds a year, compared with a median starting salary of 18,300 in other professions.

The Metropolitan police, where salaries typically start at around 16,635 pounds a year, recently relaxed its recruitment policy to allow people with minor criminal convictions to apply.

But with more officers retiring than new police on the beat, the government's target of boosting policing levels by 9,000 looks a long shot at best.

Even the armed forces have suffered from a loss of appeal. The Army is short of about 5,000 personnel and in the third quarter of 1999, 30 percent more people left the Royal Air Force than joined, the Independent newspaper recently reported.

The public sector recruitment crisis is being exacerbated by the economic boom which Britain has enjoyed in recent times.

Eight years of solid economic growth have brought unemployment to its lowest level in a generation, at 3.6 percent, making poorly paid public sector jobs even less of a draw for young graduates.

"We only really recruit satisfactorily in teaching when there's an economic recession going on," said Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).


Official figures released this month showed applications for postgraduate teaching courses down 16 percent on the previous year.

That was despite government offers of 6,000 pounds for student teachers and an additional 4,000 pound "golden hello" bonus for those entering designated "shortage subjects" of mathematics, science, technology and modern languages.

Desperate to fill gaping holes in staffrooms, education authorities have gone as far as Australia and India in search of more teachers to swell the already bulging ranks of "backpacking" supply workers.

"They wouldn't be doing that unless they had a serious problem," said McAvoy.

As with other public service professions, the problems in schools are particularly acute in London and the prosperous southeast of England, where house prices are prohibitively high for those on low public sector pay.

"No public sector worker can afford to live anywhere decent in London," said de Gruchy.

Government ministers claim a massive response to a new advertising campaign under the slogan "Those who can, teach" to tempt more applicants into teacher training.

But with a starting salary of 16,050 pounds a year, increasing demands on time from new curriculums and assessments, and limited support for dealing with unruly pupils, unions said a more radical approach was needed.

"The government's just scratching the surface. Advertising to cloak reality and con people into teaching just isn't going to work. Salaries need to be boosted by a significant amount just to keep staffing levels constant," de Gruchy said.

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