The highs of a Highland post
That time of year has come round again, when nervous student teachers must scratch their choice of areas on their General Teaching Council for Scotland forms and so start the next step on their way to becoming fully registered teachers.
For some the preference waiver of pound;6,000 is tempting enough to risk the remotest of placements, while for others domestic situations make the process unbearably stressful.
What all probationers know as they tick the box or not, is that there is around a 30 per cent chance they will not get their first choice of authorities. Indeed, probationer allocations are the stuff of legend, told on cold winter nights instead of studying. Nightmare scenarios that happened to a friend of a friend are passed around and shuddered over.
"Where exactly is Ardnamurchan?" they whisper.
The probationer programme has bedded down quite successfully since it was established in 2002, and local authorities and schools agree it is a vast improvement on what went before. It gets the student vote too, with its guaranteed job for a year and fast tracking through to full registration within that time. But the allocation system is not so popular. Some students know they could end up anywhere.
One "anywhere" is Highland, a land of extremes. As the largest local authority in Scotland it accounts for a third of the whole country and more than 10 per cent of the British Isles. It has 29 secondary schools, 183 primary schools (24 of which have only one teacher) and six special schools, all servicing a population of just over 200,000. There are some large urban schools, but there are many more small, rural schools where behaviour management strategies are almost academic.
It is huge, but it is also breathtakingly beautiful. Despite this, as a local authority it continually struggles to recruit probationers and fully registered teachers. Even those probationers who would like to consider it are concerned about just where they could end up (see www.tes.co.ukscotlandstaffroom).
"There is a fear factor about applying to Highland," agrees Elaine Kirkham, principal staffing officer for education, culture and sport services. "But we work hard to ensure probationers are as happy as possible with their allocation."
Over the past two years, the authority has developed a communication programme to alleviate as many problems as possible. It begins with visits to the universities to talk to students about Highland.
"You can't chose locations within the authority and, as it is such a large authority, many students are nervous about putting us down. But if they do, we begin a process of communication immediately. We take alternative addresses and phone numbers so that they can be contacted.
"We ask about preferences, family and if they can drive or have a car.
Obviously we can't guarantee them allocation in their preferred area, as they must go where there are vacancies, but we try to get them as close as possible."
Highland has benefited from the probationer system, and has seen numbers rising. In the current year it has 58 primary and 47 secondary probationers, almost double previous years. Of those, 13 are there because they signed the preference waiver box.
For some, hearing about their allocation was devastating. Lyndsay Jamieson was desperate to change, but like most authorities Highland has a policy of not releasing probationers once allocation has been made.
"I was to be sent to somewhere that I had never even heard of. I contacted Highland Council, GTCS and even the Scottish Executive to get this lunacy reversed. But the decision had been made, I was to go to Ardnamurchan High School," she says.
She now loves it. Another probationer, Kate Maclennan, also ended up at Ardnamurchan, which she considers lucky. "Because of its smaller size, just 125 pupils, there is a lot less crowd control and a lot more teaching. I can apply sophisticated learning techniques that I thought would have to wait for a few years," she says.
Putting two probationers in Ardnamurchan was not a coincidence. Over the past two years the authority has developed a strategy of clustering probationers to reduce feelings of isolation and remoteness. In some areas, as many as 13 have been placed together to create communities, and in others, shared housing has been arranged. But even this may not be enough for some.
The TES Scotland has found one category less likely to be allocated a rural placement - non-drivers. "Two years ago we placed one probationer in Ardnamurchan, but it was impossible for him, as he didn't drive. So we reallocated him to a school in Inverness," Mrs Kirkham says. "Since then we always ask if a probationer can drive and has access to a car. It is all part of the communication process."
Highland's difficulty in attracting staff isn't just limited to probationers. It has a recruitment crisis in general, which can work in a probationer's favour. Most of the allocations are to fill existing vacancies, meaning a permanent job is possible at the end of the year. Last year 21 of the 28 primary probationers took full-time posts and 20 of the secondary probationers stayed.
These high numbers show job seeking isn't so fraught in the north, but they also show that for the majority of probationers who put Highland on their GTCS form, they find they never want to leave.