Aussies prove an asset in staff famine

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Young, confident and highly-regarded Australians are helping to plug London's staffing gap while MPs are warned of a huge shortfall in the number of British graduates wanting to train as teachers. Sharon Webb and Clare Dean report.

Growing numbers of young Australasian teachers are working in London, taking advantage of an emerging teacher shortage here, and escaping a growing job shortage in their homeland.

A director of the Capstan supply teacher agency, Ray Mercer, estimates that on any one school day in London at least 1,000 Australasian supply teachers are working. Numbers of teachers with permanent jobs are not readily available, but anecdotal evidence suggests that secondary teachers in maths, science and the humanities are finding employment.

Among heads and operators of supply agencies, however, Australasians are not merely regarded as conveniences in Britain's time of need. They describe them as excellent teachers, good classroom managers with good planning and record-keeping, and able to deal with discipline in a systematic way.

Headteachers claim that Australian teachers are better able to cope in difficult schools. One said that in her experience such teachers rarely have problems with classroom control, and deal well with children having difficulties.

Those working in London are overwhelmingly young, usually with about two years' teaching experience. If they do not have UK parentage, they can only get work permits until the age of 26.

Those employing them debate whether Australasian teachers' skill levels are necessarily better than those of UK teachers. They believe their teacher training to be fuller, however, with a better balance of curriculum development, classroom management, pastoral care and discipline.

And they agree that Australians arrive with a get-up-and-go attitude which affects their relationships with pupils, their classroom management and their attitude to extra-curricular activities.

According to Chris King, education director at Timeplan, Australians go into the classroom with a "can-do attitude". He said: "They have a no-nonsense approach of 'I'm in charge, this is what we're doing and we're all going to do it'."

Kawal Singh, headteacher at Mitchell Brook primary in north-west London, said that commitment was their key characteristic.

"They're only short-term teachers, but I'm amazed at their full-time commitment," she said. "They're in school early preparing for the day and they stay late. They don't behave like ordinary supply teachers."

Mrs Singh, a head for 10 years, has employed many Australians and believes that the scarcity of teaching jobs at home means that those who train are more committed. And the better public image of education in Australia creates teachers with more self-esteem.

Mr King, who trawls Australian universities for recruits, agrees. "Education is better regarded in Australia; the country still has the migrant ethos that the way to get on is to get educated," he said.

"In the UK we've had 25 years of a newspaper and political open season on teachers and education. It's knocked the stuffing out of a fair slice of the education service - and it's harder to attract good people to teaching. Education in Australia is able to attract better students and imbue them with the right attitudes."

The bottom line, say the employers of Australasian teachers, is motivation.

Mr King believes that self-selection means that the UK sees the cream of Australia and New Zealand's teaching crop; only the brightest and best have the confidence and motivation to come to the other side of the world to teach.

The director of one agency which employs about 300 Australasian supply teachers a week said: "The ones who come over are exuberant and are prepared to put everything they can into this adventure. They have an enormous zest for life which translates into their teaching - as it does with a lot of young British teachers."

While Britain gains from the injection of skilled, enthusiastic teachers, the equation is not one-sided. Teaching enables Australasians to fulfil the great dream of European travel.

For others, teaching in London especially is a way to get wider post-training experience and accept the challenge. Melbourne-trained Helen Biamis, now teaching full-time in a London secondary, said: "If you can be a good teacher in an inner London school you've done yourself proud."

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