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Why should we bother to return?

Even potential maths teachers find there are far too many obstacles placed in their way, says David Gilmour.

There isn't much demand for maths teachers. At least, that's what it has felt like as I have tried to convert myself into one. Not what you expected? Well, me neither. Before I started down this path, I had done my research. So what made me wonder if demand wasn't so high after all? Simply this: if teachers were in demand, I would have expected that to be reflected in the efficiency of the recruitment processes. It hasn't been quite like that.

For example, it has taken 11 months to get on the supply list of one commutable local authority. And I am not there yet. Of course, that is an extreme example. But the process has been one with a lot more snakes than ladders.

What really rings alarm bells is that, when I tell stories like this in staffrooms, no one is surprised. Typically, I will get helpful hints on how to work round the systems. But in a profession committed to quality, the days of working around defective systems should be over. We should be learning from experience, and using that knowledge to improve our systems.

So what might be learnt from my experience?

My former employer decided to relocate to the south of England. Many of the staff were looking for new careers in Scotland. But an opportunity to market teaching to these people was missed.

I had trained as a teacher years ago, and needed to know what steps I would need to take to be allowed to teach - but had to slowly piece this jigsaw together myself. For example, I only learnt about Returning to Teach courses from a local authority job advert. Perhaps the Teaching in Scotland website could answer returners' questions? It currently embodies the false assumption that potential teachers will not be trained.

At a job fair, Teaching in Scotland provided wrong information about pay scale placement for returners on probation. Again, the information just wasn't geared to potential returners.

To find out likely job prospects, I called my local authority education department. At the mention of work, they passed me to personnel - who had no idea even of current demand. To find out about pay, I spoke to an education authority that provided out-of-date information. The 2003 changes, which mean that a supply teacher now accrues entitlement to sick pay and holidays, would have been a selling point - but were not mentioned.

The General Teaching Council for Scotland was a model of efficiency, finding my record immediately and quickly processing my registration request. But achieving full registration through supply work is not a process designed to attract and retain new teachers. I have been fortunate in that I have managed to find maternity cover work in mathematics. If your subject is in less demand, it's impossible to estimate how long full registration - and the corresponding move from the bottom of the pay scale - will take.

And, of course, the trend towards employment of supply pool teachers is reducing the opportunities for probationer returners to achieve full registration in this way.

One of the most puzzling inefficiencies is that around supply lists. Each authority I have dealt with has a completely different process. They are all completely manual and make different demands. Where this process is slow, and no feedback is provided, there must be a real risk that people will give up waiting and look for alternative employment.

Supply list systems assume you are already inside the teaching world, which is alienating. It causes delay, too, as ad hoc arrangements have to be made to work around these embedded assumptions. For example, how can I provide an "essential" reference from my previous school if I have never taught?

There is a sense that the end-to-end processes are not managed, so that it is possible for applications to fall through the cracks. One major delay was caused because a school I had attended for interview had examined, but not photocopied, my documents. It was many months before this became apparent.

There is no such thing as a 0.7 timetable for someone working towards full registration via the supply route. You are a supply teacher, and are unlikely to be covering a probationer's 0.7 timetable, which I accept. But the need to do 270 probation days, not the 200 of the teacher induction scheme probationer, is surprising, and could be offputting.

Clearly my fragmented glimpses of the system don't provide an answer. But, together, they show that the system for attracting and recruiting teachers is focusing on new recruits and leaving returners to find their own way.

Making it easier for returners to find their way into teaching is a course of action worth considering. Given that we have demonstrated an interest by qualifying in the first place, the rate of return on such an investment could be high.

David Gilmour is teaching maths on supply in East Lothian.

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