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Flood in the labour pool

Willis Pickard examines Scotland's teaching-post saturation.

I qualified as a secondary teacher at Jordanhill in 1994. Since then I have had only one temporary period of employment (five months) and have applied unsuccessfully for more than 30 vacancies up and down the country." So wrote a correspondent to the Scottish edition of The TES in November.

His heartfelt complaint about a system in which fewer than one in 10 newly qualified teachers north of the border can get a job was given extra point a couple of weeks later when the Secretary of State for Scotland issued the annual paper outlining his proposed intakes to the teacher education institutions next autumn.

The "capping" of intakes is intended to create a balance between supply and demand. For courses in primary education and for most secondary subjects there is an excess of applicants, and universities and colleges would be tempted to take more students in order to attract fees and increase their lecturerstudent "efficiency" ratio.

But the Government's paper in November was prefaced with a letter from a senior civil servant in which he stated: "There may be evidence, although the picture is not entirely clear, that we are still training too many teachers, and if we continue to do so the already difficult employment position will yet be further exacerbated." Graduates without jobs and those about to seek their first appointments will say "Amen" to these sentiments or give a loud raspberry, depending on their patience and politeness.

The civil servant's letter was addressed primarily to local authorities, who are the principal recruiters of new graduates. In effect he was asking them to indicate their budgets for hiring next summer. His letter preceded the Secretary of State's announcement of grant to the local authorities, which was greeted with dismay. The 29 new single-tier authorities which assume responsibility for schools on April 1 will not be looking for many teachers. They will struggle to continue paying the ones they have.

One local authority officer described prospects: "The very best are continuing to get jobs. The very good are not. In effect, we are cherry-picking."

Frank Reilly, principal staffing officer for Strathclyde, says that as many as 150 applicants are chasing every primary post and up to 50 applying for every secondary post in English. Vacancies in the region have been ring-fenced for the past two years in favour of long-serving staff on temporary contracts who have given "satisfactory service" for 100 days since the end of 1993.

Mr Reilly's message to those seeking their first job on any form of contract is bleak but realistic: "The likely scenario is to be given supply work followed by temporary contracts followed possibly by permanent employment. " He added that students "don't always like the message but at least they appreciate we are being upfront with them".

Depressingly for new graduates, anecdotal evidence suggests that experienced teachers may be preferred to probationers despite the extra salary payable. A teacher with nearly 30 years' service south of the border found on moving to Scotland that she was able to pick up supply work fairly regularly whereas her daughter, who qualified in primary last June, can get no post at all and is working as a receptionist.

Recent graduates and those due to join the labour pool in the summer ask why the Government still maintains entry to teacher education courses at previous levels. Although a cutback next autumn would bring no direct benefit to them, there is an increasing logjam as one year's unemployed pool is joined by a further batch.

Last autumn's secondary intake to the five teacher education institutions was 960. The Government's paper suggests that stricter criteria would reduce this autumn's to about 700, but the proposed quota is 200 above that. A sudden fall would "create internal difficulties for institutions". In other words, unemployed teachers could argue that lecturers' jobs are being safeguarded at their expense.

The General Teaching Council, to which all Scottish teachers have to belong and which exists to safeguard their interests as well as to maintain standards, is consulted every year about the intake quotas. Ivor Sutherland, its registrar, says: "It is better to err on the generous side now in terms of setting the intake levels to the colleges in the certain knowledge that we would be sorry later, although I accept it is hard and depressing for teachers who cannot get jobs immediately."

The fear is of shortages later. The memory is of the Seventies when apparently chronic teacher famine was turned within a few years into an excess, which led to bitterly contested decisions to close colleges of education. For most of the time since then the quota system worked reasonably well in maintaining a balance between supply and demand. The question now is the degree to which it has got out of kilter. New teachers say to an intolerable extent; officialdom believes that drastic changes would prove counterproductive sooner rather than later.

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