The cold splash of reality

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Ann Wilson pleads for a chance to use her hard-won skills in a primary class. We are almost a month into the new term and my probationary period as a primary teacher. These last weeks have brought the crushing reality home to roost that as a BEd honours graduate I am surplus to requirements, on the never-ending supply list, basically unemployed and caught in the stranglehold of waiting to be called upon and unable to strike out to something, anything else.

It appears my up-to-date training in the 5-14 curriculum is not required. My knowledge, skills and understanding of children's learning and classroom practice - which have been freshly honed, tuned and developed - are not required. Nor are my professional competences, which have been documented and commended. At my level and at this stage in my career, I am a skilled classroom practitioner - with no classroom to practise in. It is true that I do not have the wealth of experience and the quick-thinking ability that being a teacher for 10 or 20 years can bestow - but nor am I ever likely to, given the present situation.

Teaching is often described as a lonely job, spending much of your day shut off from other adults. However, supply teaching is surely the most isolating experience for the newly-qualified. As the new term began, conversations with equally nervous college friends were dominated with questions: "Will we get phone calls in the first weeks? What do you take with you?" In the second week of term, one colleague received the early morning call to take a class. She duly arrived and was shown the classroom door, and told: "This is your class, they're P6 and there's 24 of them." This was her first day as a "real" teacher. The door was then shut behind her (not locked from the outside, I might add) and she was left to get on with it - no plans, no other tips, nothing. Just splash, sink or swim. Supply teaching positions and conditions like these can never adequately support the beginner teacher.

So, despite the title of primary teacher which implies membership of a professional collective, I feel I am very much outwith the working fold. I am not part of any team, I am receiving no professional support - and I am certainly not the only one. This article could have been written by any one of the unemployed BEd graduates (not to mention PGCE graduates) around the country.

On numerous occasions in our final collage year, as a year group, we laughed sardonically when our lecturers painted pictures of us in our teaching posts and half-heartedly promised us that "there will be jobs out there". Secretly, we all suspected that something would turn up. But no. Has primary teaching really become a profession of the disinherited, broken before they even start? How does this bode for future pupils' learning when the experienced teachers have gracefully retired?

They say if you can teach, you teach anything and anywhere, but when the 5-14 curriculum is what I've been trained in, I'd like the opportunity to put my understanding of its principles into motion. Therefore the national curriculum and England do not dangle before me as the carrot to a new life. Yet as time goes on I worry about becoming obsolete, and that prospective employers seeing my "no work" record will regard me as such. I want to work in Scotland.

I believe in our education system and traditions and I am proud to be a "product" of that system. I remember the enthusiastic, dynamic and effective teachers who taught me and instilled in me that sense of pride and love of learning. I want to model myself on them and push on with the education of children in the 1990s, playing an important and beneficial role (I hope) in the lives of some of the citizens of Scotland in the 21st century.

A large percentage of my job-finding efforts have been focused on the new council areas in the north-east. Readers in these areas will know the extent to which positions are scarce; often 160 applications for one job, and anything between 200 and 400-plus on the supply lists. When you get to these figures, a top honours degree does not appear to hold much water. It often seems it's who you know, not what you know that wins the post for the day, the week or even the month.

Where else in industry do the best qualified personnel get bypassed for the available positions? Is it only if your name happens to come out of the hat on that lucky day that you're in? Is even the quality of children's education a lottery these days? However, the volume of personnel chasing jobs is not solely a northern phenomenon.

When phoning for an application form to a school in south-west Scotland, I was greeted by an exclamation when I gave my address, "Where's that? . . . Up there! We've had applications from everywhere today!" Surely this illustrates the problem newcomers to the profession are facing?

This is not just a sterile moan about the Scottish employment situation. No one hates a whinger more than me. I would rather be pro-active, but I have made the applications (too numerous to mention), I have attended the interviews (which favoured experienced teachers) and so instead of signing registers or staffroom coffee-fund books, I am signing on. I have visited schools in my area, with a smile, a CV and a reference where I have been given the sympathetic smiles and the empathetic words, but no work, no teaching, no classroom.

I gained some life experience in the real world for a few years before committing myself to primary teaching. My decision was firmly made after I was assured that they were recruiting students who had "done other things" because of the shortfall in staff they anticipated in four or five years. So I have changed careers and made sacrifices, for which I have become an unemployed graduate, over-qualified for many posts and with a degree in an inappropriate discipline for others.

How are graduates ever supposed to get out of the student rut when without the security of permanent work, no financial organisations will take them seriously when approached for a car loan or mortgage?

How many parents are now having to support their graduate fledglings after seeing them leave the nest, only to see them come home downtrodden, broke (but very well qualified) four years on? I, and countless others, want to get our lives on track. In order to do this must we really turn our backs on the profession we trained for and which we were so enthusiastic about joining?

Ann Wilson lives in Banffshire.

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