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Act now before stress empties the staffroom

Ministers must look at new conditions that will boost recruitment and retention of teachers, says John Burleigh.

HILE one of the current educational priorities of the Government and local authorities is the introduction of chartered and fast-track teachers, recent reports state that there is going to be a shortfall of teachers in the future for a number of reasons. Among the factors:

* Out of every 100 teachers enrolled into teacher education institutes, 40 drop out of their course, 15 move into another branch of education and 10 leave after just three years of teaching. Hence, on average, only about one third remain in teaching as a full-time career.

* Teachers who have been in the profession for 20 to 30 years do not wish to remain in the classroom because they no longer have the stamina and are wanting quality time for themselves - so they are retiring early.

* Teachers in the twilight years of their career are finding that their love for the profession is being challenged and tested, to the detriment of their health.

* Home Office statistics for 1998 show that 21 per cent of all crime was committed by children under the age of 16. Ninety per cent of these children came from broken families and more than half had been excluded from school.

It is not surprising that teachers find it almost impossible to teach in some areas, where the level of family breakdown is particularly high. It is small wonder that the health of many teachers suffers under such conditions, causing them to leave the profession or seek early retirement.

One possible way of addressing these problems is through changes in the school week. One example can be found in Edinburgh and the Lothians where schools operate a four-and-a-half-day week, introduced by the then regional council in the late 1980s.

The half day free from pupils falls on Friday afternoons in most schools, while a few have Wednesday afternoons off instead. This is very attractive to teachers as it gives them more quality time. I believe it would make the job more attractive.

The retention problem of those not wanting to stay in teaching could be offset or slowed down by giving teachers over 50 years of age special packages whereby they would work three or four days, share with others in return for receiving a lower salary. This could be made attractive for both the education authority and the teaching profession as all that experience would be retained in schools and at the same time the "twilight" teachers would receive additional quality time.

When I came into teaching, I remember my principal saying: "If you retire at 60, you'll see 17 years; but if you retire at 65 you'll be fortunate if you see 17 months." He retired at 60 and is enjoying retirement at 72. From my 12 years' experience of teaching, I think the present school day does not serve teachers' well-being. I would like to see the school day restructured or overhauled so that teachers have a better quality of life from a better-designed timetable, instead of having to stay on after school as many currently do.

The thinking behind an alternative approach is that schools do not have all the answers and that the ratio of family time to school time should be increased. I believe there is an invaluable education to be sought not only in the home environment but in the community too. Teachers should also be able to have time out without risking their pension rights. More flexibility is the way forward.

I have spoken to teachers who say that teaching has changed and is not the profession they entered. They say it is much more demanding, due to social changes such as the fragmentation of families. Hence there is greater disruption and control of the classroom is threatened.

My main concern is that teaching has an occupational hazard which we call stress and overload (exhaustion) which is affecting the health of colleagues. Many have, with regret, left the profession. This has meant we have lost good teachers who had so much more to give but who, to preserve their health, had to call it a day. We need to act before more take the same route.

John Burleigh teaches craft, design and technology at St Columba's High in Gourock.

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