Last-minute downgrading takes its toll
As newly trained teachers scramble for the remaining posts available in September, they need to be aware that not everything in the appointment process is necessarily what it seems.
The most vulnerable moment is when, after a stressful day of interviews and other selection tasks, the inexperienced teacher is offered a job. That's when unscrupulous heads may change the rules, knowing the candidate will be too euphoric to think of the small print.
In one recent example, the job offer suddenly became "temporary for one year in the first instance" without any explanation and despite having been advertised as a permanent post.
The applicant, Helen, says now: "It didn't register with me at the time, so when they pushed an informal offer letter in front of me, I signed a copy without thinking. I was just really pleased to get a job in a good school in an area where I wanted to be."
Getting the job fairly early in the season also meant that she could concentrate on completing her teaching practice and university assignments without the constant worry of "will I have a job in September?" Only later, when she and her partner were planning their move north, did the full effect of what had happened become apparent.
Her partner, James, was to give up his job in advertising and look for work in their new location. They calculated that, with her salary and some savings, he could take his time to find the rightjob. He was even contemplating a change of direction, possibly including some retraining or higher education.
But now with only a year's salary guaranteed, some of those ideas will have to be ditched. James must get a job as soon as possible so they can save in case the worst happens and Helen is looking for work again this time next year.
They hoped to buy a small house, and there are plenty available in the town to which they're moving, but the building society won't give them a mortgage (unless they can put up at least a 25 per cent deposit) because Helen's contract is not permanent.
She says now: "I wish I'd said no when they offered me the job because I'm sure I would have got another one by now, and I wouldn't have these worries about being out of work in a year's time."
For Gerry, the problem is not the length of the contract but the point on the scale he will be paid. As a mature entrant with a good degree, he calculated he would start on CPS 5 or 6. He has a young family and, after four years of getting himself through a degree and PGCE, needs to be earning as much as possible.
Like Helen, he was pleased to be offered a job in a good school, even though it is in a more expensive area than where he lives now. But, having accepted the post, he was suddenly told: "We can't afford to pay you the full rate but we'll offer you CPS 3, which is one point above the basic." Again, he was given a letter to sign immediately.
"The more I thought about it afterwards", Gerry says, "the more cheated I felt, and it really took the pleasure out of getting the job. And I couldn't understand why they'd done it; there had been no indication from anyone that the school had a serious budget problem and afterwards the head of department told me she was upset by what the head had done."
For both these new teachers their moment of triumph turned sour. But what can they do? Gerry says: "I'm still following up some of the applications I made before getting the job and, if somebody offers me something better, I might not have too many scruples about taking it, although I don't feel good about it."
Neither feels they can make a fuss at their new school. "I don't want to be thought of as a troublemaker before I've even started working in the school, " says Helen, and Gerry agrees.
For that reason they have not sought advice from a union nor raised the matter with their college tutors. It's also why their real names have not been used here.
They will probably have to put up with this unsatisfactory situation and hope that their performance in the job will lead to Helen getting a permanent contract and Gerry a review of his salary.
But other teachers should be careful to check exactly what they are being offered before accepting a post. This should be done during the appointment process (at the latest as a response to the "have you any questions to ask us?" with which most interviews conclude).
And, if any surprises are produced at the offer stage, it is important to remember that the emotion produced by our "sudden death" approach to appointments cuts both ways: schools are as reluctant to offer a post to a runner-up or to re-advertise as anxious teachers are to turn down an offered post.
This gives the teachers some bargaining power. And it should be used. Starting a teaching career is hard enough; no one wants it made worse by doubts about their choice. Or, for that matter, about the integrity of the school's management.