The ruin of probation;Opinion

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Dini Power says it isn't the money that puts new teachers off, it's the way they're treated.

THE REDUCTION in the number of graduates applying for places at teacher training institutions is no surprise. Most of the emphasis in the press has been on the disincentive of teachers' pay. Apparently potential teachers are seeking work elsewhere because of the lure of higher salaries offered by the big names in commerce and industry.

But I don't believe a sense of vocation is any rarer now than it was when I came into teaching in the late eighties. And despite propaganda, I don't believe the alternative careers exist in enough numbers, or with impressive enough salaries, to lure all of those people away.

Yet something is putting graduates off the profession in greater numbers than before. I believe it is the way they are being treated by the system.

Most newly qualified teachers have their zeal and enthusiasm trampled on within months of starting work - if they are lucky enough to find any. Permanent contracts are scarcer than ever, so nearly all have to start work on supply.

Only if they are very lucky will they be given a stint the length of, say, a maternity leave. They often find themselves doing odd days at different schools, or a couple of weeks here and there, then a gap of unemployment before another period of work is offered.

This is bad enough. But even where a new teacher manages to find a reasonably long period of work, many schools no longer seem able or willing to fulfil their obligation to them as probationary teachers. Since there is no contract, the school has no vested interest in the temporary teacher's future.

I am sure there are exceptions, but generally probationers on supply have a strong sense of grievance about the lack of support and in-service training. Such grievances can never be voiced, however, because the cardinal sin for teachers on supply is Rocking the Boat.

The second sin for supply teachers is Creating More Work for Other People. Fear of Not Being Asked Back, the ultimate punishment for any of these sins, hangs over the head of the supply teacher at every moment. Appearing to manage, smiling at all times, and accommodating the whims of colleagues and superiors become all-important.

Few experienced teachers got through the probationary period without committing at least one of the sins named above. But the difference was that when there were still permanent contracts for new teachers, their sins were tolerated and they learned from them. It is easy to forget that probation was designed originally to help new teachers learn the ropes, air their problems and seek advice from others.

One teacher who has now left the profession told me: "It wasn't that people didn't want to help. But they were all so overworked they simply couldn't take the time to help me sort out difficult situations. I felt completely isolated. And they knew I would be gone in a few months anyway, so it didn't seem to matter."

When permanent posts do become vacant, schools tend to favour the incumbent supply teacher if they are seen to be doing a good job. It makes sense for a variety of reasons. But it also means that perfectly competent teachers on the supply list can repeatedly find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, while someone with less ability and experience happens to land the job that leads to the permanent contract.

Worse, the system of appointing temporary teachers in the first place is haphazard in many authorities and open to nepotism at every level. The policies espoused by the various authorities in this respect sound laudable, but checks on their implementation are rare.

Temporary teachers faced with these overwhelming obstacles may turn to their unions in the hope of some kind of redress, but rarely meet with any success. The EIS are vociferous in raising resolutions at conferences. But when it comes to protecting the interests of their most vulnerable members on temporary contracts, their reputation among supply teachers is poor.

Our profession's shoddy treatment of new recruits has repercussions throughout the system. It is bad for morale generally. Potentially excellent teachers leave the system in disgust. And local education departments are viewed as unstable and exploitative employers. Once inside the system a teacher can observe that the education authority is doing its best in very difficult circumstances, and that the lack of permanent posts occurs ultimately as a result of underfunding by central government. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the outsider, the authorities' unwillingness or hesitancy to fill vacant posts with permanent appointees is inevitably seen as a deliberate policy, designed to save money at the expense of continuity for pupils and genuine employment opportunity for teachers.

Dini Power is a teacher of English at Stirling High School.

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