David Henderson reports from the SSTA's conference in Peebles
Comprehensive secondary education from S1-S6, taught by specialists and offering a balanced curriculum, has never been under greater threat, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association warned last weekend.
Launching a last-ditch campaign to defend what the union regards as the fundamentals of secondary education, speaker after speaker outlined the threats posed by a teacher recruitment crisis and a more flexible curriculum.
Primary teachers were invading the early years of secondary while further education lecturers were teaching senior students. Delegates said that in some areas mathematics and home economics, where shortages can be acute, were taken by non-specialists, while two probationers were running another secondary department.
David Eaglesham, the union's general secretary, feared that a staffing crisis would encourage local authorities, backed by the Scottish Executive, to dilute the profession. Classroom assistants were being used as cover in England and similar practices could creep over the border if Scotland runs out of qualified staff.
"The impact of this on absence cover in England is clear to see. No teacher available? Send in the assistants. Step by inexorable step we are moving down this route and in danger of sleepwalking into atrophy," Mr Eaglesham said.
He spoke of a "supra-Herculean" task to recruit thousands of extra teachers over the next decade to compensate for the large number of staff due to retire.
"In the short term we need to recruit an additional 400 teachers per year for three years as current policies unwind. By 2007, the replacement number will rise to 700 per annum and by 2010 to over 1,100. It will continue at that level until 2018 at least," Mr Eaglesham said.
"But by 2013 there will be almost 20 per cent fewer young people to recruit to teaching. Equally, there will be 20 per cent fewer young people to recruit to nursing, accounting, public transport and even ballet dancing."
The Executive, he believed, would be forced to turn to emerging world nations, where English is no barrier, to staff Scottish classrooms. It was "no exaggeration to predict that by 2020 up to 40 per cent of teachers in Scotland could have originated in a domicile furth of Scotland".
"The constant referral is to the medical profession - empower the nurses to take over the work previously done by doctors and auxiliary staff to do the work previously done by nurses. Regrettably, the analogy is false. Valuable though classroom assistants are, there is no parallel between the intensive training of nurses and the work of classroom assistants," Mr Eaglesham said.
As Executive recruitment targets were missed year by year, entry standards would be lowered, "imperceptibly at first and then with increasing haste".
Peter Wright, West Lothian, said that dilution of the profession had begun with the General Teaching Council for Scotland's revision of entry regulations, which now stipulate only two years spent on a related degree course at university to teach a secondary subject. In times of shortage, employers or their agents could not be trusted to be effective gatekeepers to the profession.
"When shortage comes to crisis and teachers of any kind become rarer than rocking horse manure, any teacher will continue to be employed so long as they are warm and have a pulse," Mr Wright said.
Curriculum flexibility was an equal threat with history the latest subject, following classics, to be squeezed in some schools. "The reality is that the budget is bottom line and availability of appropriately qualified staff is driving this process," he said.
"If the SSTA does not take a stand on this issue, who will?"
But Richard Goring, South Lanarkshire, countered that he had some 35 students following Higher psychology at a college, which produced excellent results and helped them gain entry to higher education. "It probably improves the ethos of the school and encourages them to stay on to sixth year," Mr Goring said.