New kids from the Bloc

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Eastern Europeans flocking to the UK to teach findthe cultural gulf difficult to cross, writes Martin Whittaker

Supply teacher Katalin Gresz has been adapting to life in a south London comprehensive after arriving from Hungary in June. But she admits it hasn't been easy. Her colleagues have been very supportive and she loves her school's facilities, but she found the first few weeks a struggle. "I was not used to teaching people who are not willing to work and have no intention to further their education," she says. "This is unknown in Hungary because the best schools are always full and you need to be 200 per cent better than the rest to get in. In England, pupils are too aware of their rights... it's like they do you a favour when they come to class."

This term, Miss Gresz has returned to Kingsdale school in Southwark to gain further experience in the national curriculum.

"I still have a long way to go, but I am proud that in such a short space of time I have achieved such a lot, and got closer to one of my dreams - to become an English specialist in England," she says.

She is also proud of her country's new status as a member state of the European Union. On May 1, Hungary joined the EU along with the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Miss Gresz seems to embody Hungary's pro-European spirit. Aged 27, she spent two years here working as an au pair before graduating as an English teacher in Hungary in 2002. She speaks some German and Russian and worked as a translator at the University of Debrecen in Hungary last year and as a private English tutor from 1999 also in her homeland. "I feel much more independent and feel we are becoming European citizens instead of just restricted Hungarian ones," she says.

Teachers from the European Economic Area - which includes the EU countries, plus Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway - may apply for qualified teacher status without the need for further training, and are exempt from the requirement to serve a statutory induction period.

Most overseas teachers working in the UK come from the southern hemisphere.

The market is now very different to three years ago when schools, particularly in London and the South East, suffered a teacher recruitment crisis.

Despite this, some agencies are actively looking to the new EU countries as a source of supply teachers, particularly in maths and science. MSM Education says it is reaching out to local agents to find teachers in Middle and Eastern Europe. "We believe that the current expansion of the EU is going to result in a significant and positive addition to the present supply teacher pool," says its managing director, Jane Mercer. "Previously, schools could only consider teachers from those countries as contract teachers requiring work permits."

Ms Mercer admits that schools could be put off by candidates for whom English is a second or even third language. But whether the new EU teachers fail or succeed here, she believes, will depend on how ethical and comprehensive agencies' recruitment processes prove to be.

"If the market becomes flooded with inappropriately skilled Eastern European supply teachers without sufficient preparation and induction into the UK teaching system, the best teachers will suffer the consequences.

"The automatic right to qualified teacher status afforded to all EU teachers is an aside to their overall suitability, which must be determined on an individual basis."

This automatic right for teachers from the European Union is an issue that vexes Hays Education, an agency with 13 partnerships with local education authorities and a preferred supplier with London and Birmingham schools.

Andrew Anastasiou, a company spokesman, argues that the right to qualified teacher status for teachers from European member states discriminates against those from English-speaking Commonwealth countries, putting them at a huge disadvantage.

Those who are not from a European Economic Area state can work up to four years in England as a temporary teacher without the need for qualified teacher status, but must gain QTS if they want a permanent job here.

This is not an easy matter, as The TES forum for overseas teachers attests.

Many complain of a long, bureaucratic process of gaining status and, in some cases, of schools that fail to pay them the proper salary when they do qualify.

"Some are fantastically well-qualified and exceptional classroom teachers," says Mr Anastasiou. "Why is it that they have to go through this process? For me, that's a waste of government money when they should be giving Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians the same rights as those from the EU."

He welcomes the new European Union countries as a source of supply teachers, but insists there has to be quality control. "Maths and science are a key area for overseas teacher recruitment, and the old Eastern bloc is very hot on maths and science. I know a lot of residents in Eastern European countries do speak very good English, but I think it's important for us to safeguard our students and to ensure that the quality of English of the supply teachers is comparable to that of a British teacher."

Richard Mitchell, marketing director at Teaching Personnel, says it is still too early for the new European countries to have a real impact.

"It's not been the rush many people expected," he says. "A lot of recruitment agencies would still probably favour Australia, South Africa and New Zealand as their first ports of call."

A Department for Education and Skills spokesperson said there are no estimates on how many teachers from the 10 new EU countries will want to pursue teaching jobs in England. "Under the terms of the EU treaties, all member states have to recognise the professional qualifications of nationals coming from other states to work," he says.

"Obviously, schools and LEAs will carry out their own recruitment procedures to ensure any prospective teacher - wherever they come from - will be suitable for the post."

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