Here teacher, lecturer and writer James McEnaney gives his thoughts on how to tackle teacher shortages in remote areas of Scotland. His comments follow reports last month on proposals to boost the number of teachers in rural and island schools across Scotland.
1. Don't make it mandatory
This seems entirely obvious, yet the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association general secretary, Seamus Searson, was quoted in The Herald as saying that there had been "discussion along the lines of everyone doing their probationary period, which could be longer than one year, having to spend at least a year or two years in a rural setting". This would be a mistake. For some people, such as those with young families or caring responsibilities, a move to a rural area is just not possible.
It would be quite perverse if, in trying to bring down one set of barriers, we simply erected another, particularly when we need to be encouraging greater diversity of background and experience in the teaching profession.
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2. Sort out the housing issues
I know from tough personal experience that one of the big problems with moving to an island is finding somewhere suitable to live. Local councils or the Scottish government – or both – could allocate, purchase or build properties specifically for the use of incoming teachers in rural and island locations. On Arran, a local group is seeking permission and funding to build new social housing, with plans in place to allow additional weighting to applicants who are, for example, seeking to move to the island to work in one of the schools. This sort of initiative alleviates one of the major issues when moving across the country, while secure and affordable housing also creates a financial incentive for teachers without having to break national bargaining pay structures.
3. Give more students a taste of it
I “ticked the box” – for the so-called preference waiver, meaning I agreed to be sent anywhere in Scotland for my probation year – because, frankly, I needed the money to pay for a wedding. I was assigned to Arran High School, which is a move I don’t think I would ever have chosen if left to my own devices. Within a few days of starting work, I knew I wanted to stay. The atmosphere was completely different from what I had experienced during my own school days in Kirkintilloch or on my teaching placements in East Ayrshire.
I often think that, when I retire, it will still be the best job I ever had, because teaching as part of a genuine community is, I think, the purest form of the job. If more students were offered the chance to complete teaching placements in a rural or island school, and encouraged by their lecturers to take up the opportunity wherever possible, I'd be fairly confident that we would see a concomitant rise in new teachers' interest in working in such areas permanently.
4. Introduce guaranteed transfers
Teachers moving to rural and island areas facing staffing pressures could be offered a guaranteed transfer after five years, at which point they would be able to rank five local authorities and be placed in a school using a similar system to that employed for probationers. This would hopefully encourage more people to take a chance on a job in a more remote part of the country by eliminating any concerns about becoming "trapped", while also encouraging them to stay for more than just one or two years, securing greater consistency for schools and, crucially, pupils.
5. Support CPD
The Scottish government should set up a new fund for rural and island teachers to access CPD (continuing professional development). The fund would pay travel, accommodation and class cover costs, helping to ensure that people considering moving to islands are less concerned about being cut off from new training and opportunities. It could also be used to take events out of the usual venues in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling, with support at this stage for teachers in urban areas to attend events in the Highlands and islands.
We talk a lot about collaboration in Scottish education but, as in many other areas, are not very good at ensuring that the whole country, and not just the densely populated Central Belt, is brought together.