Scotland's flaking chalkface

27th August 1999 at 01:00
Neil Munro begins a series of special reports on recruitment difficulties in teaching - and what is being done to tackle them Numbers are healthy but the big danger is the quality gap.

ON THE face of it, there does not appear to be much of a problem. Applications to the five teacher education institutions for the postgraduate secondary course rose from 2,030 to 2,134 for the 1,015 places at the cut-off point in mid-May. The 265 places on the one-year postgraduate primary course attracted 1,929 applicants compared with 1,486 last year.

For the four-year primary BEd, there have been 5,522 applications for 600 places. This represents a 4.6 per cent increase on last session, a dramatically different picture from England where numbers for the equivalent course have fallen by 10.9 per cent.

Primary education still appears to be an attractive career for school-leavers and mature entrants, says Pat Lowrie, dean of Paisley University's education faculty at Craigie.

Mrs Lowrie, a member of the Scottish Executive's teacher planning group, is none the less well aware of problems ahead with an ageing workforce and salaries that continue to compare badly with other professions.

Alarm bells started ringing in March when Douglas Weir, dean of Strathclyde University's Jordanhill education faculty, warned that he had just over 900 applications for 400 secondary places in the coming session. A ratio of almost two to one was rather too close for comfort, especially when shortages in individual subjects and demand for ever more subjects are taken into account.

Moray House Institute of Edinburgh University has had 577 applications for 192 secondary postgraduate places. Jim O'Brien, the vice-dean, says this is "healthy" but a keen eye has to be kept on the quality of applicants and the subjects they are offering.

New Scottish Executive regulations, requiring postgraduate trainees for secondary schools to have studied their main subject for three years instead of two, could also turn off the flow of prospective teachers. This would have made a quarter of Jordanhill's intake last session ineligible.

Some believe this tightening up of entry qualifications is unnecessary. Sheila Hughes, former director of the postgraduate secondary course at Jordanhill, suggests that higher qualifications will not necessarily produce better teachers.

"The teacher education institutions are now getting recruits not just straight from school but from older age-groups who have a broad range of life experiences which people keep saying the schools want," Mrs Hughes said.

Further dire predictions followed in June when Ivor Sutherland, registrar of the General Teaching Council, revealed that of the register of 73,000 teachers more than 53,000 were over the age of 40. Although these figures include former teachers, Mr Sutherland warned of "a colossal imbalance sooner or later. We will be struggling to replace teachers as they leave the profession".

Pat Cairns, head of Firrhill Secondary in Edinburgh and another member of the supply group, has warned that problems with supply cover, not just for illness but to release staff for retraining, could hit classroom attainment. The stakes could not be higher.

Dr O'Brien of Moray House, also a member of the national planning group, says it is beginning to confront the problem. "There has been a lot of uncertainty and apocrypha around the issue of teacher supply as the difficulties being experienced by education authorities do not appear to be borne out in the statistics."

Quotas are fixed according to a complex calculation which takes into account the birth rate, expected pupil numbers, the age profile of the teaching force, retirement projections, general "wastage", education authority estimates and the general imperative to balance teacher shortage against teacher unemployment.

But, according to Dr O'Brien, the data is not sensitive enough to anticipate pressure points such as Government initiatives on pre-school expansion, class sizes or the number of secondary teachers switching to further education.

"It's not a case of trying to be scientifically precise because we will never get to that stage," Dr O'Brien says. "What we want to strive for is an adequate supply ofteachers rather than an over-supply or an under-supply." BOOST TO PLACES.

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which now fixes the number of student teachers in training, has already taken steps to move to 1,000 places on the four-year primary BEd within the next five years.

The 600 places allocated to the course this session compare with the 450 statistical projections say are strictly required.

Similarly the funding council has increased places on the secondary postgraduate course from 812 to 1,000, above which level it will have to continue for a decade to head off shortages.

The number of teachers qualified to teach only one subject exacerbates the problem, the council states.


Authorities that are looking to plug the gaps could also make a start by recruiting more men.

They account for only 7 per cent of primary teachers and

just 47 per cent of secondary teachers.

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