62% of new teachers cannot secure full-time permanent jobs yet teacher training numbers are at their highest level in a decade. Scottish education must wean itself off cheap probationers before more damage is done.
One of my first jobs was in a high street shop when I was in S6, around the same time I applied to study history at university with the ambition of one day becoming a history teacher.
In Christmas 2007, our shop accepted a work-experience candidate from the local Jobcentre with little, if any, cost to the business. A second candidate was swiftly taken on, so there was no need to hire temporary staff over the festive period as we had done in 2006. It was on the request for a third that the Jobcentre clocked what was really happening: subsidised staff were being used to save money under the guise of training, despite the paradox that their efforts made the chances of securing a job in the shop highly unlikely.
Missing the point
The Education Secretary surely raised the eyebrows of many side-lined teachers when she praised the news that probationer numbers will go up by over 500 to 3,617 next year. Ms Somerville was at pains to frame the increase as ‘really positive’ while pointing out that ‘local authorities are responsible for the recruitment…of their staff’. Yet the very fact that so many are being recruited and trained is the reason that too many fully qualified teachers are still searching for secure work.
How does teacher recruitment work in Scotland?
Universities recruit to teaching education programmes, mainly the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE). The Scottish Funding Council (SFC), an arms-length body of the Scottish Government, sets the recruitment targets for PGDE courses by level, by subject and overall; on a granular level, they even specify how many places each university should recruit per subject. Universities have discretion, however, to exceed these subject targets so long as they aim for the overall targets for PGDE recruitment, which have increased dramatically since 2016/17.
As part of its remit, the General Teaching Council Scotland (GTCS) runs the Teacher Induction Scheme, or TIS, (i.e. the probation programme). PGDE students submit the five local authorities in which they would prefer to complete their probation year to the GTCS (or preference waiver, if they are happy to be placed in any council). This allows the GTCS to give local authorities a preview of the probationers available to them in the following year. In March, councils return a submission of staffing vacancies for which they wish to request a probationer rather than recruit a fully qualified teacher. They can also request surplus probationers for faculties where there are no staffing vacancies. By May, the GTCS reconciles both sets of requests, ensuring each probationer is allocated to a school.
Unfit for the task
How does the current recruitment system fall short? First, certain subjects are persistently over-recruited at PGDE level. The latest data from the Scottish Government shows that 63 history candidates were recruited against a target of 58 places for 2020/21. This means that since 2016/17, history PGDE recruitment stands at 120.4%. PE (108.2%), modern studies (104.8%) and geography (104.2%) are similarly affected. Yes, universities need to balance under-recruitment in core subjects – maths was only 68.4% recruited over the same period – yet why must the career prospects of social subjects and PE teachers be damaged by this pursuit?
Second, high PGDE intakes create a surplus of probationers, enabling cash-strapped councils to use the Teacher Induction Scheme to lower their costs. Probationers earn £27,498 with 80% of this cost being met by the Scottish Government if councils request them to fill a vacancy. Councils can also request probationers that are surplus to staff requirements with 100% of their costs funded by the government. Any probationers who remain unallocated after local authority requests are fulfilled are offered to councils, again on a fully funded basis. In each scenario, this represents a substantial saving compared to hiring a fully qualified teacher, whose salary would be at least £32,994 and met solely by the local authority. This incentivises councils to withhold vacancies from fully qualified applicants in order to bid for subsidised probationers.
In the February of my own probation year, a permanent post in my school was advertised but withdrawn without explanation. Eventually, the local authority acknowledged that the post was pulled to create the staffing vacancy necessary for their successful probationer bid that March. Accounts from peers illustrate other forms of ‘bed blocking’: schools being allocated probationers in the same subject across successive years. Staff on fixed-term contracts being replaced by probationers. Experienced, retiring staff being replaced by probationers. Jobs advertised in the spring being withdrawn after the allocation of a probationer; even interviews being arranged then cancelled after a probationer has been provided.
Third, there is a clear link between over-recruitment and diminished employment prospects that can be established via Scottish Government data. In September 2017, 57% of all post-probationers were in full-time permanent posts. 12% were in the ‘Other’ category, which includes those on supply, unemployed, teaching outwith the public sector or having left teaching entirely. Yet for history post-probationers, the figures were 44% and 17% respectively. This pattern was seen again in September 2020, with history post-probationers more likely to be over-represented in the most insecure destinations (18% for history, 15% overall) and under-represented in the most secure type of post (35% for history, 38% overall).
What should be done?
When only 13% of post-probationers found full-time permanent posts in September 2009, the SNP cut PGDE places by 40% for 2010/11. A recovery of sorts was made, places rose again in 2012/13 and, as noted above, by September 2017 the figure improved to 57%. However, from there an unsustainable rise in PGDE recruitment, which surpassed 3,000 in 2019/20 – a figure last seen in 2009/10 – has seen prospects decline. The latest figures show that 62% of post-probationers did not secure full-time permanent work in September 2020.
Although the recent suggestions by some teaching unions of a ‘supernumerary’ probation system – in other words, where probationers can only be surplus, not plug gaps – is a welcome suggestion it does not go far enough. Without redressing the over-recruitment of the worst-affected subjects, it does nothing to fix the damage done. Without a reduction in the overall numbers of PGDE students and probationers, the supply of subsidised staff would remain too high and the careers of too many would suffer before they even began.
Scotland must therefore wean itself off cheap probationers before even more damage is done. A move towards a lower but sustainable overall target for PGDE recruitment over the longer-term must be set before we reach the shamefully low job prospects seen in 2009.
In the interim, I propose the following steps to make the current system fairer. First, recruitment targets for history PGDE programmes should be cut by 25% and intakes capped at this level from 2022/23 to 2025/26, with proportionate reductions for PE, geography and modern studies helping to address over-recruitment in prior years.
Moreover, the GTCS should be required by law to annually publish probationer requests and allocations with the local authority, school and subject detailed. Given that this data already exists and the GTCS is its conduit, the costs would be minimal. Greater transparency here would empower PGDE students to make more informed choices on their local authority preferences. In turn, local authorities would be encouraged to forgo opportunistic probationer bids if they want to attract sufficient trainees in the first place.
Lastly, local authorities should be prevented from using probationers in the same subjects, in the same schools in successive years. Ideally, a limit of once every three years effective for 2022/23 onwards would allow for a two-year period where a staff member would need to be hired. This would stop under-resourced councils withholding vacancies from candidates in order to get probationers on the cheap. In conjunction with the first point, this would reduce the over-supply of probationers and increase the employment prospects of post-probationers, particularly in history.
End the blame game
The SNP’s policies on workforce planning in education must come under closer – and long overdue – scrutiny. Not only are they chasing ever higher number of probationers, but as a central government they are paying at least £24,000 of taxpayers’ money for each of them once PGDE fees, salary and other costs are factored in, funds that could better spent in the first instance by local authorities to hire qualified teachers to the staffing gaps that exist.
Now that the SNP has been in power in Holyrood for longer than Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States, it does not augur well that their creativity now only extends to blaming councils when pressed by the very teachers they themselves have failed. Given that her predecessor was eventually run over by his own pedestrianism, it is perplexing that Ms Somerville continues to drive home the message that the costly over-recruitment of the nation’s teaching workforce beyond saturation point is worth celebrating.
Teacher recruitment in Scotland desperately needs an overhaul, starting with targeted reductions in the number of PGDE students, greater transparency from the GTCS and Scottish Government, and an end to the use of back-to-back probationers. A reduction in the overall number of probationers to more sustainable levels must also be considered. This would not be pulling up the ladders of opportunity but stopping the construction of yet more bridges to nowhere.
A shorter version of this article appeared inThe Herald; featured image used by it via PA.