Who pays the poacher's bill?

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
The UK's recruitment crisis may have eased but overseas-trained teachers still flock here, with serious consequences for their home countries. Wendy Wallace reports

Never-ending winter". "Lonely and isolated". "Kids' behaviour". Message boards on The TES website register some of the difficulties overseas trained teachers face when they come seeking professional development, adventure or - the bottom line for most from developing countries - enough money to send some home.

Rose, a 42-year-old English teacher from Zimbabwe, describes her first few months as a supply teacher in a Kent comprehensive two years ago as "horrifying". "I was scared of leaving the classroom when the kids were in the corridors. I sat on my own at break time. My self-esteem was destroyed; it was like being back in my first year of teaching, and I had 16 years'


At the height of the recruitment crisis between 2000 and 2002, overseas-trained teachers helped keep English schools running. In the major cities and across the south-east, where shortages were most acute, no one cared too much about their fitness for the job. For schools, says Jane Mercer of the MSM supply agency, it was a case of "two arms, two legs and a teaching qualification? Get them here by Monday." Commercial agencies were happy to oblige. Teachers recount landing in Britain one day and starting work the next, with a voice at the other end of the phone saying "Have your A-Z ready." Telephone interviews were common and teacher recruitment sometimes looked more like musical chairs than a considered professional exercise.

Things have changed since then. Recruitment, although still difficult in some areas and subjects, is no longer in crisis. When 31-year-old humanities teacher Alden Jackson arrived from Jamaica in 2002, it took him eight months to get any work. Now teaching at St Columba's Catholic boys'

school in Bexleyheath, Kent, he did voluntary work in a south London school to get acclimatised. He says he was initially shocked by pupils' behaviour.

"But by the time I started teaching, I was used to the boldness of the challenge they make on you."

Many overseas-trained teachers have been in the UK for two or more years; some have acquired qualified teacher status (see box) and permanent jobs.

We are in what one recruitment and retention manager, Philip Keywood from the London borough of Tower Hamlets, calls "a maturing marketplace". But what initially seemed an ideal solution - vacancies filled by people who wanted the work - is increasingly recognised as carrying a considerable cost - to individual teachers, to school managers and students, and to the countries these teachers leave behind.

The desire to come to Britain is as strong as ever. The number of overseas-trained teachers has continued to rise; at the last count, in January this year, there were 11,600 working in English schools, compared with 8,100 in 2002. Mr Keywood receives around 20 calls a week from Polish teachers looking for vacancies, although none from long-standing EU member countries. Some agencies are bringing in teachers from new sources, including the Caribbean, Russia and eastern Europe.

Here, headteachers, perhaps understandably, do not concern themselves with the schools these teachers have left behind. But shortages in the UK are being shunted on to other parts of the world. Africa, which needs an extra five million teachers to achieve the United Nations goal of universal primary education by 2015, is still a net exporter of teachers. Small Caribbean islands have been haemorrhaging secondary staff, not just to the UK, but also the United States and, to a lesser extent, other islands.

Concerns were first raised by Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.

"Education ministers said they would draw up plans during the summer, only to discover when term started that teachers were not there," says Winston Cox, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth. "Maths and science were most affected."

Earlier this autumn, representatives of 23 Commonwealth countries met British officials in the UK to discuss their grievances and finalise a protocol. The resulting agreement is voluntary but outlaws the large-scale poaching of teachers from developing countries and calls for increased dialogue with education ministries. Recruitment agencies and local education authorities that have gone on so-called "fishing trips" were implicitly criticised. Speaking at the conference, Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (which was involved in the talks), commented on "ethical practices that local education authorities and teacher recruitment agencies must be made to follow". He said: "Past failure to tackle teacher shortages in developed countries, such as the UK, has damaged vulnerable education systems across the world."

But Ms Mercer believes the new protocol is flawed. As a voluntary agreement, it has few teeth, but one threatened sanction is to revoke the Department for Education and Skills-awarded Quality Mark for agencies that do not follow the suggested rules. But the threat would apply only to ethical agencies such as hers, she points out. Hundreds of other less scrupulous small agencies and individuals, without the Quality Mark, will be unaffected.

Ms Mercer, who describes her agency as a "champion of overseas-trained teachers", believes that, with good management, global teacher mobility can work for everyone. She is enthusiastic about Russian teachers - "the most tenacious in the world" - and placed around 80 Jamaican teachers in English schools last year after holding recruitment seminars in the Caribbean. "We give them a clear picture of what life and teaching is like in the UK. We deter as many as possible so that those we do select are appropriately skilled and have the right mindset. The best want to come, gain experience and take it back, which has enormous benefits across the world."

But some square pegs continue to land in round holes. Just a couple of weeks into this school year, one headteacher from the shires lost a new teacher from abroad. He simply left. Another of the four overseas teachers brought in to fill gaps in science and maths was "on support", struggling to cope. "It doesn't mean they don't work hard," says the head. "But the nature of the challenge is greater than they will have been prepared for."

The associated cost in management time, and discontinuity for children, is a "hidden deficit" in the system, he says. The Commonwealth protocol is intended to reduce the damage, not just to poorer countries' education systems, but to individual teachers who come here, some of whom have been traumatised by their experiences.

Joseph began his education in the early 1970s under a tree in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. By the time, 30 years later, he boarded a plane to come to England as a supply teacher with a hard-won BEd honours degree and years of teaching experience, he felt he had arrived. "I was looking forward to the unknown," he says. "It was very exciting." In fact, he was flung into inner-city supply teaching the next day, and received no induction from his agency until three months later. "The kids were not that bad," he says.

"But if someone had spent even a couple of hours inducting us, we could have coped much better."

When the agency ran into financial difficulties, a promised bonus was withheld and teachers were advised to look for another company. Many (including a South African deputy head reduced to sweeping the streets) returned home, one had a nervous breakdown and others, including Joseph, decided to tough it out. Now working in an east London residential home for young people with challenging behaviour (alongside numerous other African staff), he still aims to achieve qualified teacher status before returning home. "I have to show them what I have acquired here. Right now, I'm still putting things in my basket. I seem to have left the track a bit but I'm still working with young people, giving them tuition. That fire is still there."

Black teachers from overseas have fared worse than their white colleagues.

A Teacher Training Agency study last year on minority ethnic and overseas student teachers found that black teachers from abroad faced more discrimination than black British teachers. "Most of the overseas teachers experienced considerable culture shock, compounded by xenophobia andor racism in the schools, which some were able to handle and some were not... Some African teachers experienced repeated name-calling, animal noises or rude puns."

Some believe they have experienced racism from colleagues too, albeit more subtle. "It is so veiled," says one African teacher. "I would describe it as prejudice. You are from a country they don't even know, and they are not sure of your ability. A kind of barrier is created between you and some people: an invisible barrier that you can't break."

Ms Mercer admits that placing African teachers is a fine art. "In the leafy suburbs of Hertfordshire, it'll be a polite 'no'. Or you'll get a deep sigh, then, 'Not a Ghanaian teacher'. It's according to demography and because they've probably had a succession of bad experiences with inexperienced teachers brought through unscrupulous agencies."

Australian, New Zealander and Canadian teachers are the most popular. "It is easier for staff from some countries," says Linda Austin, head of the 1,050-pupil Swanlea comprehensive in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

"In Australia and New Zealand, there is an emphasis on inclusion and teachers are skilled in dealing with a wide range of young people, and some who might come up with challenging behaviour. They are able to manage, be very positive and emit a sense of enthusiasm our youngsters respond to."

Others point out the benefits of having teachers who reflect as wide a range of countries as the students. "It just seems right," says Trevor Averre-Beeson, who has led the turnaround at the once-troubled Islington Green school in north London. He is interested not in a teacher's country of origin so much as in "experience, character and attitude". Ten of his 80 teachers are overseas-trained and he says he has "excellent" staff from countries ranging from west African states to Australia. "They are motivated and they have come for a reason; you have to be an ambitious, adventurous person to do that. They are not all excellent but the majority are very good."

Winston Cox and his Commonwealth colleagues hope the protocol will not only bring some order to the flow of teachers out of smaller states, but might encourage more two-way traffic. "You cannot stop the movement of individuals," he admits. "But there is an element of skills transfer going back, and scope for bilateral arrangements, for instance, in teacher training."

Rose from Zimbabwe has now won her qualified teacher status. She says she has learned a lot here and has been greatly helped by an unofficial mentor in school. "We would chat, and I felt free to go and ask her things. I think with time she also found out she could learn something from me," she says.

How to qualify

Teachers who train outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and who are not nationals of a member state can work for up to four years in England as temporary teachers without qualified teacher status (QTS). They must gain QTS by enrolling on the overseas-trained teacher (OTT) programme if they want to stay.

The OTT programme is an employment-based route to QTS; it allows teachers to follow individualised training and assessment programmes while still teaching. Those who have more than two years' experience may be exempted from an induction year after QTS is awarded.

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