Primary schools up and down Scotland are struggling with a chronic lack of core and supply teaching staff. This severe teacher shortage has been widely covered in the media, as have the pressures it puts on local authorities and schools.
It is a very real problem with a short-term impact on workload and a medium- to long-term impact on the leadership and development of schools as they seek to keep up with the ambitious agenda set by the National Improvement Framework.
It is also likely to have a negative knock-on effect on the number of applications for school leadership roles in the future. It is a problem that needs to be addressed, and, in order for that to happen, it needs to be openly discussed and debated.
I recognise that the teacher shortage is not a primary-only phenomenon. The following idea for tackling the problem only applies to the pre-secondary and special sectors; taking the same action in secondary schools would not solve the staffing issues that they face.
As I see it, there are only really two possible approaches to solving the problem in primary: the first is to increase the number of teachers that are available to schools; the second is to reduce the number of teachers needed by making adjustments to the system. There are issues with both.
The first approach is not a simple fix – for the basic reason that it takes time to train teachers. There will be a wait of at least a year and a half between any decision to increase teacher-training places and the point when students recruited actually arrive in schools as probationers.
On top of that, workforce planning is notoriously imprecise, as evidenced by the fact that we have the current teacher shortage despite the best efforts of policymakers – including the decisions taken to significantly overrecruit in comparison with the modelled intake requirements.
The second approach – reducing the number of teachers needed – is also complex, but for other reasons. Reducing the number of teachers that are required means either shortening the pupil day, introducing non-teachers into the mix or increasing teaching hours.
Time for action
All three ideas, understandably, have met with considerable opposition from teacher unions, and the first two have little support among parents. However, just because the solutions are not welcomed by some doesn’t mean the problems can be left unaddressed. We can’t stand by gazing at our shoelaces while schools struggle to make do without the required complement of teaching staff.
No one in Scottish education wants to get to the point where there is no option but to send pupils home. Currently, the teacher shortage is being managed by school leaders picking up an increasing amount of class-contact time to cover absences and allow teachers their non-contact time. This means that leaders either have less time for their leadership duties or their working hours go through the roof.
Interestingly, the latter seems to be the case. In a recent workload survey conducted by the school leaders’ body the AHDS, headteachers reported working an average of 55.3 hours a week, and almost 30 per cent of promoted teachers reported a weekly average of 60 hours or more. Tellingly, the top response when they were asked “What would make your role more manageable?” was a reduction or removal of the need to provide class cover.
I recently wrote a Facebook post proposing the removal of reduced class-contact time for primary teachers – so that their class contact commitment matched that of pupils – while increasing teachers’ contracted hours by the same amount, and paying them for those extra hours.
On the face of it, this is an undesirable and costly suggestion. However, as teachers already work considerably more than their contracted hours with no recompense, the additional income would be welcomed by many. The additional time in front of class would require additional preparation, but it would be very unlikely that it would equate to 2.5 hours’ additional work for most teachers.
No extra cost
The increase in the salary bill for Scottish education also seems like a big hurdle, but, actually, the move would be cost-neutral since the current system is based on bringing in other teachers to cover classes to enable 2.5-hours-a-week of non-contact time.
What that means is that it would be a redistribution of current resources, rather than a call for more.
Finally – and this is the absolutely crucial part for addressing gaps in the system – this change would result in more teachers being available to fill core vacancies and to undertake supply work.
Privately, I have received a lot of support for this suggestion and the attempt to open up debate. Sadly, it was met with immediate hostility from another union. I was disappointed by this, not because the union was negative about the idea, but because the comment that I saw didn’t acknowledge that there was a problem which needed to be resolved. Nor did it suggest an alternative course of action.
Aside from that, the response has been largely positive. Indeed, my understanding from those members who have discussed my suggestion with their teaching staff is that there are many class teachers who are open to this new idea.
In an effort to inform debate, I’m keen to get a fuller sense of the perspective of primary class teachers. With this in mind, I have set up a simple online questionnaire open to all. So please take a minute to share your view at bit.ly/AHDSsurvey
I expect that some will cast this contribution as an attempt to make the life of leaders easier at the expense of classroom teachers. It isn’t. We need to solve this problem to allow everyone to play their part in making our schools the best that they can be for Scotland’s young people. The sector needs to have an open discussion about the teacher shortage and to find a way forward.
Greg Dempster is general secretary of primary school leaders’ body the AHDS