Exclusive: Visa system wrenches 'devastated' teachers from schools

Immigration rules are having a 'critical' impact on schools' ability to fill vacancies, warn headteachers

Will Hazell


Desperately-needed international teachers are being forced to quit their jobs and leave the country at short notice because they cannot obtain visas, a Tes investigation has revealed.

School leaders have told Tes that visa refusals are having a “critical” impact on their ability to fill vacancies, and teachers have described feeling “devastated” and “heartbroken” by having to abandon their pupils and put relationships on hold.

The news comes as Tes begins a campaign – Let Them Teach – to pull down the official barriers  preventing international teachers from working in British schools.

Between December 2017 and April 2018, around 250 teachers from outside the European Union were refused tier 2 skilled worker visas.

The current visa restrictions stem from a 2011 decision by the Conservative-led government to introduce an annual cap of 20,700 “tier 2” visas for non-EU skilled workers, with places allocated on a monthly basis.

To qualify for these visas when the monthly cap has not been exceeded, applicants require a “certificate of sponsorship” from their prospective employer and generally need to have a job offer with a salary of at least £30,000.

However, when the monthly cap is hit, a points-based system comes into play, which is heavily weighted towards applicants’ salaries.

Up until the end of last year, the cap had only briefly been hit. But in every month since December it has been exceeded, with the number of applications – and the number of rejections – increasing each month.

With the system so oversubscribed, the salary threshold to qualify has soared, hitting £60,000 in March – an amount that exceeds more than 90 per cent of teachers' salaries.

According to data obtained by the law firm Eversheds Sutherland and shared with Tes, between December 2017 and April 2018 there were approximately 300 applications for certificates of sponsorship on behalf of teachers, but more than four-fifths of these were turned down.

Many of those hit by the high salary bar are international teachers who initially came to work on “tier 5” youth mobility visas. These expire after two years, at which point the teacher has to switch to a tier 2 visa if they want to continue working in this country.

Kate Johnson, a New Zealander who was teaching in Star Primary School in Newham, London, was told that her £38,000 salary was too low to get a visa - just one week before she was due to fly back to New Zealand to renew it.

She was so distraught by the news that she had to leave work for the rest of the afternoon. “I had to go home because I was absolutely devastated,” she told Tes.

“I found it really stressful, with only a week’s notice to pack my life up and leave London. I’ve had to leave all my really good friends behind, and obviously James, my partner, who I’ve been with for 11 months, we’d started planning a future together.

“Most of all, I was really upset to leave my job, which I love, and my 30 Year 1 children who I had such a strong bond with, and with such little notice for them and me.”

Catalina Espinoza worked as an English teacher at Connaught School for Girls in Leytonstone, London, for two years. Her school tried to sponsor her visa, but it was twice refused and she had to leave the UK in April. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to my students, pack up my things or leave with any certainty of when I might be back,” she said.

“I have been heartbroken, month after month, seeing my hopes of returning to the UK diminish.

“The anxiety and the displacement caused by not knowing the outcome of the situation has been very high, and I have struggled to settle back into life in New Zealand.”

Jessica Lam, who grew up in Hong Kong and is a British national – but does not have citizenship – is having to relocate to an international school in South East Asia.

Having lived in the UK for over nine years, she said “the hostility from the Home Office hurts me deeply.” “I feel rejected – even though I have spent such a big part of my life here, I am still being asked to leave, as if I’ve made no contributions to society this whole time.”

Victoria Eadie, chief executive of Tudor Park Education Trust, which runs three schools in Feltham, West London, was prevented from recruiting Australian teachers to two positions which she has found impossible to fill domestically.

“With recruitment as it is, and our teachers going to teach abroad, the impact of visa refusals is now critical,” she told Tes.

While a recent change to exempt doctors and nurses from the monthly cap will free up more visas, experts have told Tes they fear teachers will still struggle to get them.

The Tes campaign – ‘Let Them Teach’ – will call on the whole profession to be added to the Home Office’s ‘shortage occupation list’, which gives higher priority for visas. Currently, only maths, physics, computer science and Mandarin teachers are on the list.

The Department for Education was contacted for comment.

This is an edited article from the 22 June edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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