Inspectors, in their understated way, have described the struggle for student placements in primaries and secondaries as "acute". After a nine-month review, they pinpoint a lack of concerted planning at all levels - schools, universities, central and local government - and say too many teachers are ducking their responsibilities.
The review, initiated by Peter Peacock, Education Minister, following last year's placement crisis, reveals failings across the system. As Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, cautiously observes: "The recent increased demand for more teachers has put a strain on the traditional arrangements for organising student teacher placements."
Most difficulties have been in English and mathematics, pre-school and Gaelic-medium, the inspectors say.
The reality is of a serious mismatch between the number of placements required and the number of schools available to take students. Last year, the system had to cope with 7,190 primary placements and 5,459 secondary placements. These numbers have risen this session, placing even more pressure on a creaking structure (TESS, last week).
HMIE's report, entitled "Student Teacher Placements within Initial Teacher Education", states: "On average, approximately three primary placements are required for each primary school and approximately 12 secondary placements are required for each secondary school."
Problems are compounded by competition for placements between the five central belt universities which train teachers, and the fact that many schools decline to take students. Inspectors do not put a figure on the number of schools involved and lament that no statistics are collected, a shortcoming of central government that has allowed the situation to deteriorate.
Some schools would accept students but are considered too remote, since travel time to and from placements must be reasonable. Inspectors report:
"A minority of primary schools and secondary departments do not provide any placements and a significant number only provide a few places. In addition, some primary schools are less prepared to take first-year BEd students whereas they would readily take a final-year student."
In defence of schools, some local authority spokesmen told the inspectors of a more demanding context of "increased expectations of pupil attainment, implementation of inclusion policies and support for weaker pupils".
Other authorities highlighted the gap between increased demand for placements and static resources. Mentors were under more pressure and some felt the universities' assessment demands were "increasingly onerous".
Teachers cited pre-examination work and pressures from the arrival of new staff or temporary staff covering for maternity leave. The inspectors remark: "It was clear from discussions with headteachers that there can be circumstances when it would be difficult to provide a good placement experience in schools, but these occasions are exceptional."
There were many good placements but a minority of schools "were not committed to taking students and gave excuses for not offering placements".
Others "grudgingly accepted" them but made little effort to provide support.
From the students' perspective, travel to placement schools was a concern, in terms of time and cost. Some heads and principal teachers were felt to have used them inappropriately and unprofessionally, to support a weak teacher, as cover for absentees, or as cover for "McCrone time".
Local authorities come under fire for failing to have a clear and robust picture of uptake and quality of student placements. "When this review began, no authority had a fully developed policy on supporting student teacher placements, but by mid-2005 most were clarifying their roles and developing their policies," inspectors say.
"To date education authorities have offered limited support to schools in providing student teacher placements and there has been little sharing of good practice within or among authorities."
Teacher education institutions (TEIs) are criticised for failing to co-ordinate their needs. "This often resulted in multiple requests for placements being made over a prolonged period of time with resultant wasted effort in schools or education authorities," HMIE notes.
The universities have also struggled to fill their increased quotas and have absorbed students up to a few days before placements begin, adding to the pressures. Further delays were caused by disclosure clearances.
Universities are further taken to task for their lack of consistency in approaching schools and local authorities when the latter were dealing with more than one TEI.
Inspectors call for improved liaison between the universities, authorities and schools to clarify their roles and responsibilities.