Skip to main content

Rites of passage

They come from Zimbabwe, Congo, Albania, Kosovo and Pakistan: refugee teachers are finding a new life in Scotland, reports Douglas Blane

The modern classroom is a tough place to work, but cleaning floors and selling cheeseburgers is a lot tougher for a qualified teacher.

"One of our clients was on a minimum wage in Burger King when she came to me," says Stewart Simpson, co-ordinator of the Refugees into Teaching in Scotland (Rites) project, set up a year ago and funded by the Scottish Executive.

"She had permission to work here and her certificates proved she was a qualified teacher, but she had no idea how to get into the Scottish educational system."

Other refugee teachers make a little more progress before being stymied, such as the woman from Zimbabwe who joined the supply list in Paisley. The authority had work and asked for her General Teaching Council for Scotland number. She said: "What's that?"

A few refugees start from a seemingly impossible position. One woman had her degree certificates confiscated while fleeing from Kosovo, and the university she went to was bombed, which destroyed the records. So how could she prove to the GTC that she was a qualified teacher?

What these teachers - and 80 others now on the Rites database - possessed was refugee status, with its permission to work in the UK. What they lacked until last year was a map and a guiding hand through the maze of the Scottish education system, so some ended up selling chips.

These are teachers who are likely to be particularly valuable in the classroom, offering a rich variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences to a profession that needs a greater diversity of practitioners.

At a symposium in 2003, Matthew MacIver, the chief executive of GTC Scotland, noted that just 20 newly qualified teachers out of 2,000 that year were from ethnic minorities, which was unrepresentative of Scotland's population. The symposium recommended that a project be set up to provide "expert advice, guidance and support" to possible candidates.

Rites was formed in February 2005 with funding from the European Refugee Fund. The Scottish Executive now provides pound;71,000 a year, while the University of Strathclyde contributes administrative support and an office on Jordanhill campus, which Mr Simpson, a teacher of 23 years' experience, has furnished. One wall displays a large map of the world, with countries'

names in their own language, while another has a poster of a young man of Caribbean origin, with dreadlocks, a kilt and a big smile.

"The first step is to gain the confidence of these individuals, many of whom have suffered traumatic events at the hands of authorities in their own countries," says Mr Simpson. "I listen to them and learn about their qualifications and teaching experience."

While the Rites project has full backing from the GTC, which is one of its partner organisations, widening access to the profession does not mean lowering standards. Entry requirements are non-negotiable, says the council.

This means that Mr Simpson must compare degrees, teaching diplomas and even school leaving certificates gained at, perhaps, Harare High and the University of Pristina with those awarded at, for example, Cumnock Academy and the University of Glasgow. To do so, he uses the online National Recognition Information Centre, set up by the Department for Education and Skills.

"As subscribers, at pound;700 a year, we get information about the comparability of college, university and even school qualifications from 180 countries worldwide," he says. "The database also has detailed information on each country's education system and how teachers are trained there. It's an interesting site, supported by a great deal of research."

The NARIC information enables Mr Simpson to explain to clients either that they are sufficiently qualified to teach in Scotland and how to become registered teachers, or that they need further qualifications and how to obtain them.

While the story of Rites has just begun, there are already a few happy endings for some teachers whose careers have been revived. People are being tracked, guided and helped to progress, rather than endlessly passed from one agency or authority to another.

Full GTC registration has been achieved by half a dozen teachers - from Zimbabwe, Congo, Albania, Pakistan and Kosovo. A second group is actively pursuing registration with Rites guidance, while a third knows exactly what additional qualifications they will need to teach in Scotland.

"I am studying for a BEd right now and am on placement at Carolside Primary (in Clarkston, East Renfrewshire)," says Gama Khumbulani, 29, from Zimbabwe. "I'm used to teaching classes of 50. My P7 class here only has 27 pupils, so that's a bit easier.

"On the other hand, children in Scotland are more challenging. They bring more knowledge to their learning and aren't as willing to accept the teacher as the fount of all knowledge.

"The other big difference is that I'm used to teaching kids who are quite unhappy: maybe half a dozen in a class would be orphans and a lot of them would be hungry. In Scotland the children are happier."

The teacher who was serving hamburgers is now a pupil support assistant in a Glasgow secondary school, says Mr Simpson. "We helped her to put together an application to the GTC, which has now been accepted with a period of provisional registration, and she is ready to start applying for teaching jobs."

New ground was broken with the client whose certificates had been confiscated and her university records destroyed. "We had long talks about that one. We couldn't accept people as teachers on their own word," says Mr Simpson. "We took oral testimonies from her, in which we went through her education in great detail, right from schooldays. She had shadow placements in Glasgow schools and was a big success, with the teachers confirming our judgment that she was the genuine article. In the end the GTC, having gone through its own rigorous procedures, agreed to a probationary period followed by full registration."

Mr Simpson attributes the progress refugee teachers are now making to their own intelligence and persistence, the strong backing Rites has at all levels of Scottish education and the access this allows him to the people who make decisions.

The teachers themselves see things from a slightly different perspective.

"I was getting nowhere until I came to see Stewart," says Vjollca Gjana, a primary teacher from Kosovo. "He is determined."

"Very determined," agrees Tina Moyo, from Zimbabwe.

refugees into teaching in scotland

* The Rites project was recently awarded 5-star beacon status, the highest achievable, by the Home Office.

* It is part-funded by the Scottish Executive, and supported by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and the University of Strathclyde, the host insitution.

* Other partners include the University of Paisley, the University of Glasgow, Anniesland College, Glasgow City Council, the Bridges Project, West of Scotland Wider Access Forum and the Scottish Refugee Council.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you