Vacancies ... come and stay

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Last term TES Scotland looked at the difficulty of recruiting teachers to remote areas in the Highlands, but the problems are even more acute in the islands, particularly when it comes to supply teachers. Su Clark reports

Brandishing a fistful of newspaper cuttings, Murdo Macleod, the director of education for the Western Isles, is venting his fury at the Scottish Executive.

Referring to a comment made by a spokesman at the Executive about how local authorities are mismanaging supply teaching, he restrains himself to protest that it is "not helpful". In an authority divided by dramatic geography and with isolated, sparse populations, the problem is chronic, not mismanaged, he says.

"Why is it always some faceless spokesman who makes these remarks?" asks Mr Macleod. "If someone is going say it, he could at least stand up and be counted.

"The Executive has no idea what the remoter regions have to go through to find staff."

His wrath had lasted some time since the comment was first made in a daily newspaper that there was no supply teacher shortage in Scotland, only that local authorities were not managing it properly.

That is not how Mr Macleod or, for that matter, Leslie Manson, the director of education and recreational services in Orkney, or Alex Jamieson, the head of the education service in Shetland, see it.

While every local authority has problems finding good quality, reliable supply teachers, the remote regions are crippled by it. And the more remote the region, such as Barra, the worse the problem becomes.

But supply is only one of the staffing difficulties facing the island authorities. Recruiting any sort of teacher is an ongoing, intractable struggle, which means in some cases it can take more than a year to fill a vacancy.

Increased mobility, which has led to a greater turnover of staff generally, exacerbates the islands' difficulties.

"Fifteen years ago when someone took up a post, they stayed in it for years, but that doesn't happen any more. They move on because of promotion or change or for the sake of their families," says Mr Manson.

The Western Isles is still celebrating the appointment of a skilled and experienced teacher to head up the Nicolson Institute, Stornoway's secondary school. Derek Curran was tempted away from his post as depute headteacher at Penicuik High, in Midlothian, at Easter, but it took the authority more than a year to fill the post. It was first advertised in early 2004 but failed to attract the right candidate, so the authority had to readvertise.

"It is not uncommon for us to get little or no response to advertisements," says Mr Macleod. "Advertising is a huge expense but worse, while other authorities have long leets then short leets, we have difficulty creating a short leet."

With fewer applicants, finding one who fulfils the criteria and can demonstrate the appropriate standard for headship is getting harder. At primary level, the problem is the same, especially at small schools, where there may be only one other teacher.

"We have been advertising for a principal teacher at a really good primary school," says Mr Manson. "We've not had one applicant."

The islands are trying to solve this by introducing managing headteachers, who preside over two or three schools. Shetland, which has been running a two-year pilot, with some success, is now formalising the process. Orkney and the Western Isles have also found the scheme workable and have been able to recruit or promote quality heads into non-teaching management roles.

"It is difficult trying to juggle the demands of teaching and managing," says Mr Macleod. "They are effectively two skill sets.

"We have run some pilots and this could be a trend for the future. Our problem is, how can we establish headteachers over geographically separate schools?"

The recruitment crisis is not limited to senior management level. The shortages in certain secondary school disciplines affecting the whole of the country are particularly acute in the islands.

All authorities are struggling to find teachers for home economics, languages, English, physical education and technical design. Even more challenging is the need in small secondaries to find teachers who can teach across subjects, such as English and French.

Working in a one-teacher department may appeal to many, but the islands are often looking for candidates who can offer more than one subject.

"We need to find teachers who can multi-task," says Mr Manson. "Often we'll take teachers who have just a modicum of knowledge in another subject and give them training to bring it up to a level at which they can teach."

The prospect of teaching composite classes, sometimes across as much as a four-year range, can be a deterrent, but mostly it is the remoteness that puts teachers off moving to the islands. There is no cinema on the Western Isles, there is less option for socialising, nor is travelling frequently to the mainland an option for someone on a teacher's salary.

"Single young people may not feel settled as they find the opportunity for having relationships isn't there," says Mr Manson.

There are few jobs for spouses. Even in the islands where unemployment isn't such a problem, such as the Orkneys, the variety of job opportunities is limited.

"There are a lot more two-job families now, which means many teachers have to move to places where their partners can work too. Police officers or social workers could perhaps get work more easily than other professionals," says Mr Manson.

Housing is another problem, with holiday lets taking up many of the vacant homes and pushing up prices and rents. Many teachers have to travel miles along single track roads to get to work because there are no houses for rent or sale near their schools.

"As the problem of recruitment has got worse elsewhere, it has become even more serious for us," says Mr Jamieson. "The nature of the islands means we have a large teacher-to-pupil ratio and finding the right people who are willing to come and live here is proving ever harder. We sometimes have people who move here believing it is a Utopia, but after a couple of years they move back to the mainland."

One option is to nurture teaching as a profession among the existing population. The Western Isles is about to embark along the same path as Highland, Orkney and Shetland, by linking up with Aberdeen University's distance learning programme.

The authority is also recruiting from abroad, using an international recruitment agent. It has already had some success in Stornoway.

But the solution to finding supply teachers, which is an even greater struggle than attracting permanent staff, is not so straightforward. Sparse populations throw up fewer opportunities to recruit former or retired teachers willing to work on a casual basis, while the dramatic geography makes it difficult to use staff from other parts of the authorities.

"It just doesn't happen," says Mr Macleod about supply mobility. "It isn't possible. It takes two plane journeys to get from Stornoway to Barra."

"It is a buyer's market at the moment," says Mr Manson. "Supply teachers can pick and choose which schools they want to work at. We have never had to close a department but we have had situations where under-qualified individuals have had to take classes for some time."

Orkney is looking at the possibility of establishing a pool of permanently employed teachers to do supply work, but recruitment could prove an issue.

If teachers are reluctant to move to the islands for a permanent post, who would move for transitory work? Mr Manson is hoping to attract newly qualified teachers.

"The problem with supply is that we can't control it," says Mr Macleod. "We rely on there being a network of supply teachers rather than creating it ourselves. If an ex-teacher should move into the area, or a mother wants to return to the profession once her children reach a certain age, we may be able to sign them up. But otherwise it is out of our influence.

"The Scottish Executive has to take a serious look at this problem, not make unhelpful remarks about it."

The Western Isles would like the Executive to launch an initiative to look at how the problem of supply teaching could be improved. Meanwhile Mr Macleod is keeping his file of newspaper cuttings about teacher shortages, which he hopes to be able to use to prod the Executive into action.

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