Expand your horizons

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Meabh Ritchie finds that the job situation in Northern Ireland is forcing NQTs to widen the parameters of their job search

Teaching students in England were no doubt outraged to hear that their PGCE grant is to be cut by a third from next year. Their counterparts in Northern Ireland, though, would be delighted at any hint of a financial incentive to go into teaching but it seems young people there need no further encouragement to take up the career.

The teaching profession there is held in such high esteem that it is increasingly competitive to get on to a teaching course at any of the four teaching colleges, with an average of six to 10 applicants per place and the current job market for new teachers similarly competitive.

Sara Lindsey, student union president at Stranmillis University College, is on a year out after graduating with a BEd last July. "Some of my classmates have walked into jobs in secondary schools in Northern Ireland, but other people have gone further afield," she says. "A lot of students leaving the college are very aware that if they want to stay here, it's going to be very difficult, particularly for primary teachers."

The GTCNI teaching register tells the same story: out of the total number of teachers aged 24 or under, only 35 per cent are registered as having a permanent or temporary contract at a school.

The obvious short-term option for NQTs anywhere would be to work as a substitute teacher until permanent work comes up, but the current substitute teaching register is already flooded with upwards of 8,000 teachers and schools will often prefer older teachers with more experience than NQTs.

As a result, graduate teachers are looking abroad for teaching opportunities. Councils in England already send representatives to graduate teaching fairs in and around the north and teaching colleges are establishing links around the world in the USA, Asia and Europe, helping their students to go on placements that could lead to employment.

Some of Ms Lindsey's former classmates are teaching primary English in Madrid while three others are teaching in secondary schools around England. "I was over visiting a friend of mine in Kent a few weeks ago, who started straight out as a co-head of department at a boys' grammar school," she says. "He's having a really good time."

Many of the BEd courses are now diversifying their content to adapt to the changing job market. As well as providing supplementary training so that new teachers can deliver Learning for Life and Work programmes in schools, Stranmillis has expanded its educational placements to include exhibition centres, arts and historical organisations, all of which employ education officers.

Audrey Curry, assistant vice-principal of teacher education at Stranmillis, thinks widening the sector is increasingly important for new graduates.

"Education occurs in many different places now, and what we say to our students is that there are places, other than a school, where your degree will be useful," she says.

"Some of our students are placed in the FE sector and cope very well within their subject specialism. We're really trying to open the minds of those who go into a teaching education course, (to see) that teaching and education is not just schools - it's much broader than that."

This might not have been exactly what the majority of student teachers had in mind when they started on the career path to being a teacher, but many NQTs find it a rewarding experience. Hands-on educational work, even if outside school, is often a great addition to the CV and could be just one stepping stone on the way to the classroom.

"At the end of the day, if you're going to walk into a full-time job, working with children in an educational setting, I don't think anyone's going to turn their noses up at it," says Ms Lindsey. "Given the economic and financial climate I think most people are willing to do it."

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