Creative solutions to Stem the teacher shortage

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
With schools desperate for staff, especially in maths and science, Emma Seith looks at how councils and universities are getting inventive to solve the supply crisis

Dr David Hardman had theoretically found his ideal job: combining his two great loves, maths and science, by creating mathematical models of blood flow in the research labs of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. But he was growing increasingly disengaged and frustrated with the day-to-day reality of his work, which involved focusing on one small area of research and spending hours writing code.

Then he started to do outreach work in schools, running medical science workshops, explaining to pupils how X-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs worked.

“I found myself spending more time on that – creating lesson plans, setting up meetings and sourcing funding so that we could buy bits and pieces to keep the hands-on things going – than really focusing on some of the stuff I should have been doing,” he says.

So in 2011, Hardman quit his job and embarked on a one-year secondary initial teacher education course, and since August 2013 he has been working as a maths teacher at Castlebrae High in Edinburgh.

This is a happy story, but the fact is that Scotland needs a lot more David Hardmans. There is a teacher recruitment crisis gripping the country, and the shortages most acute in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

In a bid to address the problem, the Scottish government announced earlier this month that it would be investing an additional £2 million in teacher education programmes, providing 260 more places and upping the targets for Stem subjects.

However, while universities and council education chiefs welcome the priority being given to Stem, they question whether increasing numbers will make a difference. As TESS has revealed, hundreds of teacher training places went unfilled this year, with key subjects such as maths falling dramatically short of their targets (see box, below).

More inventive solutions are needed, those grappling with the problem say. The mooted recommendations include everything from increasing local teacher training opportunities and improving pay, to easing strict entry requirements for teacher education courses and encouraging the profession to be more positive about the job.

Teaching ‘not attractive’

Professor Donald Gillies, dean of the School of Education at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), explains: “It is good the government is trying to prioritise certain areas, but in some subjects the target numbers are irrelevant because we just can’t recruit above a certain level. Maths graduates seem to be very much in demand across the business sector and teaching is not always seen as a very attractive proposition. The same goes to a large extent for the sciences.”

The “grow your own” models springing up all over the country may be a solution, he believes. These involve councils seeking out graduates who want to train as teachers among their own employees. They then enter into partnerships with Scotland’s schools of education to put them through part-time postgraduate programmes so that they can “earn while they learn”, continuing in their current jobs until they qualify.

The logic goes that if they already live and work in the area, they will stay there. Indeed, some councils oblige those who they support through the teacher training to work in the authority for at least two years.

The University of Aberdeen was the first to set up such a scheme with Highland and Aberdeenshire councils. The programme, known as DLITE (Distance Learning Initial Teacher Education), has since expanded and now has 40 places, with students coming from Aberdeen City, Moray and Angus councils as well as the two original authorities.

Last year Dumfries and Galloway launched a similar scheme in conjunction with UWS, in which nine council staff are retraining as primary teachers by undertaking a full-time PGDE. They will qualify in June.

In the next iteration of the Dumfries and Galloway scheme, the number of places will treble to 30. Ten have been earmarked for secondary staff in shortage subjects; the University of Aberdeen also has ambitions to expand DLITE into secondary. However, if the experience of Perth and Kinross is anything to go by, this could prove challenging.

Perth and Kinross launched a scheme this month, in partnership with the University of Dundee, in which 14 council staff will retrain as primary teachers over 18 months.

The authority had hoped that it could use the initiative to train secondary teachers in shortage subjects – specifically home economics, physics and maths.

It was looking good. More than 70 people turned up to a meeting with depute chief executive John Fyffe and Professor Teresa Moran, chair of education at the University of Dundee. But while the council had a lot of interest from people with a Stem background, none of them took the plunge.

The starting salary for a teacher was simply too low, Fyffe says: “These were people with degrees who had been working for 10 or 15 years and were earning professional salaries – the kind of people with a bit of life experience we want to get into teaching. But the starting salary of £22,000 was a blocker.”

Scotland must address the issue of pay if it is to get the subject specialists it needs, he says. “We need to take a three-pronged approach: we have to prioritise Stem – and I applaud the Scottish government for doing that; we have to sell teaching as an attractive career; and the starting salary has to be looked at.”

Gillies believes another option might be to up the number of concurrent degrees. For example, the University of Stirling offers a maths degree combined with a teaching qualification – it filled all 10 places for the four-year course in 2015.

Another common call from education directors in remote and rural areas is for more teacher training places outside the central belt – most teachers stay and work in the areas where they have been trained, they argue. This academic year Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde had 733 PGDE secondary places, compared with 173 at Aberdeen and Dundee.

Nonetheless, a steady stream of additional training places has been made available to “grow your own” programmes and teacher education institutions outside the central belt.

The University of the Highlands and Islands started delivering teacher education courses in 2013, taking on 20 postgraduate primary students. That figure will rise to 80 in 2016-17 and the university will start to train English-medium secondary teachers for the first time (see box, below).

But another frustration for universities is the criteria that prospective subject teachers must meet under General Teaching Council for Scotland rules. Sometimes, Stem graduates hoping to sign up to teacher training courses lack credits in a particular area, meaning they must either top up their qualifications or give up on the idea.

Recently the GTCS reintroduced provisional (conditional) registration aimed at teachers who have qualified outside of Scotland. And some argue that graduates who are lacking credits should be allowed to make up the other elements on the job.

‘Real perks’

As for Hardman, the researcher-turned-teacher says that the job is harder than he could have imagined. But there are “real perks” and it is these that Scotland must emphasise if it wants to attract more people like him into teaching.

Every day is different, says Hardman, who teaches maths (his core subject) and science in early secondary. Outside of classes he also runs a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award group and jointly runs a Stem club, where pupils recently built remote-controlled robots.

Another positive is that teaching offers stability, he adds. In the fast-changing world of science you and your work can quickly become redundant.

“It is the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done,” Hardman says. “It’s also the most infuriating, but its undoubtedly fulfilling. The kids here are from very disadvantaged areas and you can make such a difference to them.”

GTCS chief executive Ken Muir recently called on the profession to “talk up teaching”, and Hardman confirms that he began his journey into the profession with warnings from his primary teacher parents to “never become a teacher” ringing in his ears.

Now the Scottish government, universities and councils have to convince many more Stem experts to make the leap. The question is, will the profession help them and start selling teaching as a career?


Ambitious targets for teacher training

The Scottish government has dramatically increased targets for training teachers in Stem subjects, despite revelations in TESS that universities are already failing to meet the more conservative goals set for this academic year (“Shortage fears intensify as trainee numbers falter”, Insight, 11 December).

Figures obtained by TESS show that universities across Scotland are falling drastically short of meeting student number targets, with almost one in five places on secondary PGDEs not taken up.

Of the 146 places earmarked for maths trainees in 2015-16, just 76 were filled; out of 37 places for computing trainees, 20 were taken; and of the 58 places for technological education trainees, 35 were filled. Now the government has increased the targets in these subjects for 2016-17 to 179, 52 and 86 respectively. Targets for other Stem subjects have also risen.

Overall, the Scottish government will add 60 primary and 200 secondary student teacher places next academic year, bringing the total intake to 3,490, a rise for the fifth year in a row.

Education secretary Angela Constance says: “We have upped last year’s student teacher targets for science, technology, engineering and maths, and we know these will be challenging for the universities to meet. I will be asking the new Strategic Board for Teacher Education to look at our workforce planning, particularly in the secondary sector, to consider whether there is more we can do.

“We also launched a recruitment campaign in September with a focus on the Stem subjects and we are working with the universities to maximise its impact.”

UHI’s segue into secondary

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has been given the go-ahead to begin training secondary teachers next year.

During this academic year the university has been training five Gaelic-medium secondary PGDE students. And as of 2016-17, it will begin to train English-medium secondary teachers in a bid to plug gaps in shortage subjects.

The expansion into secondary education was recently called for by Laurence Findlay, director of education and social care at Moray Council, which has been grappling with severe teacher shortages.

Of the eight places on offer at UHI, six are going to Moray and two to Orkney. The authorities hope to train up teachers of technological education, home economics and physics through the new programme.

The course will differ from mainstream PGDE programmes available elsewhere because the subject expertise will come exclusively from teachers in schools, says Morag Redford, head of teacher education at the university.

“There is a core programme that looks at pedagogy, curriculum, aspects of learning and teaching, which is delivered in college,” she explains. “However, professional practice relating to subject specialism is delivered through mentoring in school, so our students will do extra work in school, where they will be mentored by subject specialists.”

Places on the university’s primary PGDE have also been upped from 60 in 2015-16 to 80 in 2016-17, in order to open the programme to Benbecula, Barra and Thurso.

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