Schools accused of modern slave trade

20th July 2001 at 01:00
Overseas teachers complain of poor treatment in London schools, while heads are now recruiting without meeting candidates

WITHIN hours of receiving his permit to work in a London school last February, South African Aeldred Petersen was booking his flight and anticipating the chance of a new life.

For for Mr Petersen, 40, with 17 years' experience as a primary teacher, this was a chance to live in one of the world's greatest cities, and have a job that was highly-respected back home.

But Mr Petersen, and many overseas teachers like him, the reality has been somewhat different. Several teachers who spoke to The TES this week complained that schools and agencies had offered them virtually no training and scant help with accommodation. They were also shocked to find they had few employment rights.

Many of them found that they were placed in some of the toughest schools, where standards of behaviour were far worse than at home.

One of the biggest problems facing the South Africans has been the different status of teachers in the two countries. One teacher said: "I've worked in tough townships, but even there, the parents listen to what you are saying, they know that education is the key to their children's future and they hold you in respect. It's different here."The common problem facing Aeldred and four other South African teachers was a misunderstanding of their employment rights.

All five, who arrived in London between February and April and now live and work in Hackney, east London, were given work permits by their agency. The permits, which the teachers needed to enter the country, gave the name of a school, salary and the length of time they were expected to stay.

All assumed this gave them some guarantee of work in the school for that period, and some rights should they find themselves dismissed. Having made verbal agreements with headteachers, they all gave up jobs to work in Britain.

But on arrival, they found they had very little protection. Science teacher Aneez Manuels, 31, was offered a post over the telephone by Gary Philips, head of Lilian Baylis comprehensive, Lambeth. Mr Manuels told The TES he thought he had been guaranteed work for a year at the school.

But headteacher Mr Philips said he had only ever taken him on as a supply teacher, with the understanding he was to stay at least until the end of term. In the event, Mr Manuels found work at a Hackney comprehensive.

Rene Fahrenfort, 34, found herself out of a job within weeks of arriving at a Hackney primary school. She says the headteacher arrived in her class to find a window open. Seeing this as a breach of health and safety regulations, she insisted that Ms Fahrenfort leave.

Ms Fahrenfort, who praised the support provided by her agency and the National Union of Teachers, is now working in a "very supportive" primary in Waltham Forest.

All five teachers said they had received limited, if any, training, on arriving. Mr Petersen, a Year 5 teacher, said she was lucky. His school, London Fields primary, which was supportive, had a good head and provided him with a wage which offered the prospect of paying off his mortgage back home.

But the school had not been able to offer him any formal induction or literacy and numeracy training. Several in the group had similar experiences.

A Hackney spokeswoman siad that teachers recruited in the borough were being provided with training, including literacy, numeracy and behaviour management - though this had not been provided immediately after they had arrived.

However, the support offered to overseas teachers by some authorities is highly regarded. Newham offers new recruits from South Africa, Jamaica and the United States seven days of training in their first term.

And John Mann, head of Gloucester primary school, Southwark, is putting his 12 Russian and Bulgarian recruits through a four-week training programme before they start in September.

But Mark Lushington, who speaks for the three largest teacher unions in Hackney, said that often the treatment amounted to exploitation.

He said: "This is a modern form of slavery. These teachers arrive, usually with no idea of what their employment rights are. They are offered no induction programme or training.

"They are then vulnerable to being accused of incompetence. And if a school wants to get rid of them, there is very little they can do about it."

The Hackney teachers are seeking to set up a support network for South African teachers. Anyone wanting help should call Mr Petersen on 020 8533 2246 or 07909 505033

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