Many teachers are about to become unintended casualties of the battle for better conditions in Scottish schools. That is the warning from the teaching unions, as their members on temporary contract await the post with more trepidation than usual in early summer, when schools traditionally fix staffing levels for the coming year.
Insecurity is a way of life for temporary teachers. Some welcome the flexibility to juggle work and family; others endure it, filling in temporary posts only because a permanent one has not yet materialised. The latter form the majority, according to a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland. It recently reported that 55 per cent of its members on temporary contracts are actively seeking a permanent teaching job.
Probationers starting in August are guaranteed jobs and mentoring under the Teacher Induction Scheme as part of the post-McCrone agreement signed by the Scottish Executive, local authorities and the teaching unions. However, teachers on temporary contract, many of whom have been teaching for years, could find themselves pushed aside by authorities desperately trying to fulfil this obligation.
Margaret Smith, Fife district secretary for the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, says: "I wasn't exaggerating when I said at our annual congress that I've been inundated by calls from temporary teachers who have no idea what is going to happen to them. Many have been told by their schools that they have no rights, so they'll just have to hope they will not get bumped for the probationers who are going to be placed first."
Initially, she explains, teachers were told that the new influx of probationers would not be used to fill vacancies, but rather to improve teaching conditions by reducing class sizes and creating more time for lesson preparation. "But that has not happened. Instead vacancies have been identified, and that may mean a job never being advertised but running as a temporary post for years and the new probationers will be slotted into them.
"I'm not sure of the legality of that under employment legislation, since positions should be advertised and there is supposed to be competition for them. But that is definitely what's happening."
In addition, Ms Smith says, there is a group of teachers even lower on the career ladder than those on temporary contracts and more likely to lose their grasp when the privileged new probationers appear.
"Some experienced teachers are employed without any contract at all. The worst case I've come across is a teacher who phoned me a few weeks ago for advice. He's been working without a contract for two to three days a week of unbroken service since he first qualified six years ago."
Around the country, union officials are expressing similar concerns with different emphases. Alan Taylor, the SSTA's salaries and conditions of service convener, points out that if the flexibility afforded by temporary teachers is lost, then schools will simply be unable to operate. "Without teachers prepared to work, say, 0.5 full-time equivalent one year and 0.7 the next, the education system will grind to a halt. They are a really essential part of the system. And they are being treated very badly.
"Once you've lost these people, how do you capture them again? If you tell Mr X you don't need him this year, how do you get him back next? The chances are he'll have gone to England to teach or into another type of job altogether, because you can't just sit about for a year.
"It's a very unfair way to treat important colleagues."
The most common complaints from union officials are lack of planning from the Scottish Executive and local authorities and no information or consultation about what is about to happen to a valuable group of teachers, many of whom have given loyal service for years.
A spokesman for the Executive points out that responsibility for the management of schools, including the deployment of teachers, rests with local authorities. "However, it would be entirely wrong to suggest that temporary contracts are only coming to an end because of the introduction of the new probationer arrangements. Probationers may be placed in some posts normally filled by supply teachers. But temporary contracts have always come to an end at this time of year, for a variety of reasons, and many of the individuals pick up work in the same authorities early in the new session."
This rather misses the point that this year many teachers may not pick up work because more than 1,000 new probationers in each of the primary and secondary sectors are being shoe-horned into schools without creating new posts for them.
The spokesman adds: "The Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers'
conditions of service working group is currently constructing a code of practice on the use of temporary (supply) teachers and are working towards an implementation date of August this year. The supply teacher working group is to publish good practice to local authorities for the management of supply teachers later this year."
August is going to be too late for teachers whose contracts come to an end in June and will not be renewed. By the beginning of the next school year the teachers who form the system's sticking plasters, allowing timetables to operate and saving some costs of a permanent post, will have come unstuck. Exact figures for teachers in this situation are hard to come by, but the EIS has more than 6,000 temporary teachers on its books.
For local authorities, the past few months have been a nightmare. Reports of authorities refusing to take their full quota of new probationers, or in some cases any at all, were followed by a foreboding silence and then the announcement just last week that places had been found for all 1,100 new probationers in the primary sector. At the same time, the Scottish Executive said they "remain on track" to inform applicants in the secondary sector of their placements by June 14.
No details about how all this has been achieved have yet been provided. In Aberdeenshire, a spokesman says the situation is still fluid but the authority is "fairly confident of being able to place the new probationers without too much pain to existing staff".
Edinburgh says it has yet to be advised of staffing needs in all their schools, "but we still see a role for temporary teachers for such things as maternity cover and when staff are seconded".
Fife acknowledges that placing 150 new probationers largely in existing vacancies "will restrict the number of teaching opportunities for current temporary teachers" but points out that the places about to be taken by new probationers will still need to be advertised at the end of the training period in 2003.
Positive measures Fife has taken include the creation of a permanent pool of supply staff. In the meantime, "every effort is being made by the authority to fulfil its part in the Teacher Induction Scheme and to meet the expectations of our own permanent and temporary teachers".
Dundee was initially reported to be taking no new probationers out of loyalty to existing teachers but now education resources manager Sandy Weston says he expects to be able to place their full quota of 41 with minimal impact on existing probationers and temporary teachers.
"Things looked very bleak at first. It's always difficult at this time of year, especially in an area like Dundee where falling rolls mean you need fewer teachers each year. It was even more difficult this time.
"The situation is still very fluid. But we've writen to all our staff aged between 55 and 60 to offer them early retirement without enhancement. Initial indications from that are very promising, so now we're pretty confident that we can take the new probationers in a broadly cost-neutral way while remaining loyal to our temporary teachers.
"Things are looking a lot brighter than they did a few weeks ago."
In North Lanarkshire, which has been allocated 164 new probationers, policy adviser Norrie McKay talks about the challenge of completing "a very different sort of jigsaw" from that in previous years.
"We couldn't function without our temporary staff, so we are trying to fit the puzzle together in such a way that we absorb the new probationers while keeping as many of our temporary staff as possible. We're making progress day by day.
"We have been using two main tactics to place the probationers. Authority policy is that part-time staff are temporary, so we have identified a number of part-time posts that could be topped up and that probationers could go into. Secondly, where there were full-time vacancies we are going to put two probationers into one. Because the probationers are teaching only 0.7 full-time equivalent, the schools benefit from getting 1.4 in staffing, and it lets us take two probationers for each vacancy.
"As far as the impact on temporary teachers is concerned, there are several considerations. Only certain posts will be suitable for the new probationers, who should be placed in only one school for the whole year, we believe. So that means maternity cover will be offered to temporary staff and not new probationers. Then there are staff illness and extra demands from schools at various times of year. We'd very much like to avoid bringing back retired staff, which we had to do this year because we were very short of cover in key areas.
"We are concerned about our temporary staff and very hopeful that any impact on them can be kept to a minimum."
West Dunbartonshire's head of resource development, Bob Cook, says: "We want teachers to think this is a good place to work, somewhere that looks after them and has ideas." So the authority has devised a strategic solution that places the full quota of 36 new probationers while retaining all its temporary teachers, including those who have not yet accrued employment rights.
"We sat down and looked at all the things we need to do," explains Mr Cook. "We have to take on the new probationers and provide them with a mentoring experience. We have to find a way of releasing staff for the continuing professional development specified in the post-McCrone agreement. We have to take forward the five national priorities for education.
"The only way we could do all this is to employ additional staff. So we decided to try to pull everything together.
"Rather than hiring extra staff to do the mentoring, provide cover for CPD, promote social inclusion, raise attainment and so on, we're going to use the new probationers to release existing staff. The beauty is that existing teachers will have a better handle on what we want from them than people brought in from outside.
"Another benefit is that the funding we're making available to do this is money that would have been spent anyway to take on extra staff to support the national priorities. And because we accepted our full quota of primary and secondary probationers, we were able to bid for supernumerary probationers fully funded by the Executive. We have just heard that we've been awarded an extra 17, which together with our original quota means we can now place a new probationer in every one of our primary schools."
All of which raises an interesting question, first asked by the SSTA. If this sort of creative staffing can be organised in some authorities to ensure that this year's short-term fix does not become next year's intractable problem, why not in all?
Mr Cook responds diplomatically. "Every authority is different. What each one can do will depend on how much money is already tied up, how much flexibility they have."
Maybe so. But given the solutions devised by some authorities, it is going to be fascinating to learn the details of all the new probationer placings and compare them with the numbers each authority was first asked to take.