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16th February 2001 at 00:00
There is no recruitment crisis in Northern Ireland. In fact the province has too many teachers. But things aren't quite what they seem, reports Michael Duffy.

The Government might want to modernise the teaching profession, but for many schools the priority is to fill it.

Too few teachers want to be trained and too many who are trained have second thoughts and leave for good. It is, as the DfEE acknowledges, "a problem".

Heads and teachers have a stronger way of putting it. According to Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, teacher supply researchers at the University of Liverpool, there are "all the indications of a crisis". So when Tom McKee, spokesman for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers in Belfast, tells you there is a teacher supply problem in Northern Ireland, it sounds like a familiar story.

But in Northern Ireland the situation is reversed. It's not a shortage of teachers that is the problem, but a shortage of jobs. Two years after qualifying, many new teachers are not in contracted posts and have, therefore, failed to achieve qualified status. "It is a disgrace," says Tom McKee. "We are wasting teachers."

According to figures from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, only two-thirds of teachers who qualified in 1995 were in permanent posts by 1998; just over a fifth were in temporary posts; and almost a tenth were either still looking for a job or had given up teaching.

Anne Sutherland, who surveys teacher recruitment at Queen's University, Belfast, says: "There is no doubt that a lot of teachers have found it difficult to find a job." But the shortage is not deterring new entrants; there are five applicants for each place on the province's teacher training courses - the average A-level score for trainees is 23 points.

What are the reasons for this surplus? And what can politicians and policy-makers in England and Wales - who are confronted by a very different problem - learn from it?

Part of the explanation is historical. As Tom McKee says, teaching has always been more attractive during times of economic depression. And Northern Ireland has had more than its fair share of that.

Second, in contrast to their colleagues in England and Wales, teachers in Northern Ireland enjoy a high standard of living. "Over here, on a teacher's salary, you can live quite well," says Bill Wallace, head of Cambridge House boys' grammar school in Ballymena, County Antrim. "If you're a young teacher, you can buy a house for pound;40,000. For three times that you can get a four-bedroomed detached house."

A third factor is Northern Ireland's educational system. It still has grammar schools, which some claim offer a level of job satisfaction that the English and Welsh comprehensive system has diluted. And most of its schools are church-run. Alan Smithers suggests these often offer more support and a greater sense of identity.

Ofsted and the DfEE have no role in the province. That doesn't mean there is no inspection system, says Bill Wallace, "but it is inspectionof quite a different order".

A spokesman for the Department of Education in Belfast says: "There is much better consultation and, although performance management and threshold assessment are just around the corner, they'll be simpler in operation."

There will be just four threshold standards (compared with five in England and Wales) and there will be no requirement to measure pupil progress against national standards. "Last month's decision to abandon league tables in Northern Ireland is very much of a piece with this more flexible approach," says Tom McKee.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers don't feel under siege. "Teaching is respected here," says Bob Molloy, head of Abbey primary school in Newtownards, County Down. "Teachers have never been hammered by the media. You have to remember that, during the Troubles, schools were havens of peace. It was unthinkable to blame them for all the indiscipline of society."

Bill Wallace agrees: "Teachers are highly thought of. That is reflected in the fact that the average A-level score for trainees is something English training institutions would give their eye teeth for."

There are lessons here, especially for those who argue that a more satisfying professional life is central to any long-term solution to the teaching crisis. But what is the point in making teaching such an attractive career if the jobs aren't there?

As Tom McKee points out, it's not as if schools don't need more teachers. But financial pressures mean they have to make do with what they've got. The result is something teachers in England would recognise instantly: an increased workload for existing staff. So while those on the outside can't wait to get in, those on the inside are increasingly looking to get out .

Anne Sutherland says the signs are already there. Her most recent survey reveals that nearly a fifth of secondary-trained men and a tenth of secondary-trained women in Northern Ireland leave teaching before the end of their third year.

Doris Hutchieson, head of Coleraine high school, County Londonderry, blames "a new climate of legalism. Teachers spend a lot of time fielding complaints, not just from parents, but from pupils, too. Our energies are being depleted. We have much less time for teaching."

And behind the overall surplus of trained teachers, holes in particular subjects are appearing. Heads report serious shortages in maths, physics and technology, and are resorting to familiar measures to fill them. Doris Hutchieson had to go "on bended knees" to persuade a retiree to fill a design technology vacancy. Other heads are opting for temporary appointments because they are unhappy with the quality of the candidates on offer.

There is one other dark cloud approaching. The peace process is bringing an economic dividend to Northern Ireland. Now, according to Belfast estate agent Eric Cairns, "there's a vibrant housing market", and property prices are rising faster than in any other region of the UK. That four-bedroomed starter home could soon be out of reach.

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