Priced out of the market

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Candidates with less experience than you do have one great advantage: they're cheaper. Susannah Kirkman reports

With a good degree in physics from Oxford and several years' teaching experience under her belt, Karen Revans was amazed not to land a job when she moved to the West Country with her husband.

"I went to eight interviews for physics posts and was told at one that I was definitely the most talented applicant," she says. "But they still gave the job to an NQT. Time and time again, the schools appointed a biologist NQT over experienced physics and chemistry teachers."

Eventually, Mrs Revans, who was at the top of the pay scale, took a post in the probation service. She believes she fell foul of schools' attempts to save money by employing NQTs and that women, who are often forced to move when their husbands change jobs, are particularly vulnerable to being priced out of the market.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers agrees that this is a common problem, although it is hard to quantify as teachers who are still searching for work often think that airing their grievances will simply worsen the situation.

Martin Johnson, of the ATL, says that falling rolls, particularly in primary schools, are exacerbating the difficulties facing experienced staff, especially in the North, where pupil numbers are shrinking at a faster rate.

Sarah Conway, (not her real name), is an experienced North Yorkshire primary teacher who has been looking for a permanent job since she and her husband moved areas in 1999.

"After more than 20 years' teaching the full primary age-range, I find myself too expensive to employ," she says. Mrs Conway wrote to her union, the ATL. "I've since applied for hundreds of jobs - only to see these given to newly or recently qualified teachers."

Mrs Conway has managed to win several temporary contracts for a year or less, but never a permanent post. At her last school, where she had worked for two terms, two vacancies were advertised in the summer term.

"Thinking I had a good chance of obtaining one of them, I applied, but yet again both were filled by NQTs or recently qualified teachers," Mrs Conway says. She is now working as a teaching assistant, but cannot help feeling frustrated and angry.

"At least I'm working in a school, but I'd prefer to be teaching , rather than being a low-paid helper with a great deal of experience," Mrs Conway says. "This situation is now getting beyond a joke! I know many teachers who would like to move, but, because they're at the top of the scale, they know they won't be able to find another teaching job."

Elizabeth Gray (also a pseudonym) is another experienced teacher who has found it impossible to get a permanent job. After the birth of her daughter, Mrs Gray decided to give up her permanent contract and work part-time as a supply teacher. She made huge efforts to keep up to date, attending training days at her own expense, so that she could keep up with the literacy and numeracy strategies. Mrs Gray also went to training days at schools where she worked regularly as a supply teacher.

When her daughter started secondary school, Mrs Gray was confident that she would soon find a permanent post.

"Armed with all this experience and being still only in my thirties, I thought I stood a good chance of getting a job," she says. "Unfortunately, this has not been the case, because every job I have applied for has been given to a newly or recently qualified teacher."

Mrs Gray has been told unofficially that the schools' decisions are based on money: schools are reluctant to appoint teachers at the top of the pay scale when they can get an NQT for pound;10,000 or pound;15,000 less.

"It's often the school budget that talks loudest," Mr Johnson concurs.

"Schools think that NQTs can do the job effectively for a lot less money."

He also points out that, although NQTs may lack the reflective qualities of older staff, they are now seen as highly focused on raising literacy, numeracy and science scores, an approach that schools are forced to adopt.

Mrs Revans thinks that schools' recruitment policies have changed since the introduction of local management of schools, which forces them to pay the full staffing costs directly out of their own budgets. She is convinced that salaries need to be funded centrally again.

What can experienced teachers do to boost their chances? Mrs Revans suggests that supply work or taking temporary posts can help, particularly in the secondary sector, where staff can quickly build up a reputation with local schools. Her own story has a happy ending, as she now has a permanent contract at the Richard Huish sixth form college in Taunton, Somerset, after working there temporarily.

Richard Huish is bucking the cost-cutting trend because it has a deliberate policy of recruiting the best candidate for the job, regardless of the expense.

"Excellent teaching staff are the life-blood of the college," explains Dr Peter Avery, the principal. "They are the reason why students want to come here. Inspiring teachers fill students with their own enthusiasm and love for their subjects; you can't put a price on it."

How can the college afford to pay for experience? According to Dr Avery, Richard Huish receives around 15 per cent less per head for its sixth form students than an average school. However, he is able to charge commercial rates for successful adult courses, such as professional accountancy, to subsidise the 16 to 18 staffing.

Dr Avery says that high quality teaching pays for itself; a third of his students now come from outside Taunton, some from Devon and Dorset, attracted by the college's reputation. It is ranked fifth in the country on its average A-level score per entry, and students win places at top universities.

"Some have gone to Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and St Andrews; they see themselves as playing on a national stage," says Dr Avery. "We tell our students they can compete with anyone."

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