Rural recruitment issues in education.

I know we are now into the new term by a couple of weeks but a belated Happy New Year to all my blog readers in any case. I’m very grateful to all those who read my wee stories to learn more about what a Heidie does. Indeed since October nearly 6000 of you have been keeping up to date with what is going on in OHS and across Scottish education.

The term started with mixed emotions. I am so pleased that I had the opportunity to welcome a very experienced teacher, Monty Reid to our Maths department, whilst at the same time saying a sad farewell to Crawford Inglis from our Technology Department. Crawford is an excellent teacher and I wish him well in his new career. Of course in a huge school like ours there are many changes… and challenges. We have just appointed a new Technician, crucial to the smooth running of the classes and Stefano Gallucio starts next Monday. A well known face in our community, Ewen Munro, previously of H2O has now commenced work as one of our Youth Development Workers and he along with Joan Reynolds will support Guidance Teachers, our after school homework club and the 3 Ts initiative, that D&K Lafferty sponsor, where any pupil can come in early and get a free breakfast and help with their work every morning from 8.30 a.m. I am pleased to have them both on board given how long these posts have been vacant.

I’m often asked about vacancies and why it takes so long to get staff to fill them. The same issues apply to all staff… and the same issues apply in every rural school across the country. As soon as someone writes to me with their resignation and tells me of their promotion, career change or retirement, I ask the Council’s HR department to submit a request to advertise to the Head of Education, who in turn has to check with the Council’s Finance department that I have enough money in the budget to pay for a member of staff. Thereafter the approved post is sent to both the TESS (a teachers’ national publication which advertises almost all the jobs in Scotland) and My Job Scotland which all posts are advertised on and where applications are submitted on line. Depending on what day of the week such advert requests are received will depend on which week an advert will appear. At this stage in the recruitment process it is possible for a member of staff to have given their 4 week notice and we are 2-3 weeks on… through no fault of any one person or department.

Almost all adverts stay in the press and on-line for 2 weeks to maximise the chances of a potential candidates seeing the advert. At the close of the adverts, HR gathers the paperwork and emails them to me the very next day. I then share them with those who will be on the interview panel and the panel spend a couple of days deciding who to call for interview. We then have to give the candidates at least a week’s notice to allow them to make travel arrangements. When we have interviewed all the candidates we then decide who to appoint on the day of the interview (almost every time). The next stage is to seek references from the successful candidate and of course everyone working with children have to go through what is referred to as PVG. This can take up to 6 weeks depending on the time of year or complications getting background checks done. As soon as we have the PVG confirmation they can start immediately. When we appoint staff from England and elsewhere we also have to offer the job subject to their approval by the General Teaching Council of Scotland as no teacher can work in Scotland without such approval. This can take around a month. Then there is the issue of staff we employ from England having to give a whole term of notice so that adds an extra 3-4 months to the delay.

Occasionally, we employ staff from overseas and a further check is required on whether or not they have a Visa. This complicates matters further as some candidates need the offer of a job first before they can apply for their Visa, so we can end up going through the whole recruitment process, offer someone a job and then wait a month or so to find out the Visa was declined even although they have GTCS and PVG clearance. This happened most recently to a member of staff we employed in Science some months ago and we have had to re-advertise the position once again, 3 months later.

Some may ask: “Well if it takes so long to get a teacher from England or overseas, why not just employ Scottish teachers and get them here quicker?” The answer to this is quite simply that we will appoint the best teacher we possibly can for the benefit of our pupils for years to come and not just take someone who is perhaps less experienced, qualified and talented because we can get them into school a month or two quicker.

Of course this discourse is only relevant when we are discussing posts that we can fill because we have enough applicants. There are particular posts which struggle to attract candidates nationally, far less in rural areas. It is almost impossible for find a Home Economics teacher, anywhere. There are simply not enough trained in the colleges. Science and Technical teachers remain rare and in the 10 years I have been in Oban High School I cannot recall where I have not had to advertise at least 3 times on every vacant post for these subjects (occasionally 4 times) resulting in even longer delays in appointing.

So how do Scottish schools manage the problem of attracting staff to vacancies and getting them filled as quickly as possible? Some Councils have a supply list of staff and when a vacancy arises then the supply staff are sent to the school by the Council. This works better with Primary Teachers where there are lots of similar vacancies and in a few high schools for providing general supply. It does not work at all for filling long term subject specific vacancies in high schools because of the huge variety of subjects taught. We offer over 40 different senior options in Oban High School. There is no employer anywhere in the world who could have supply teachers on tap for such a wealth of choice. In addition to this issue, unlike in the central belt where a supply teacher could be used across 10 local schools all close together, it simply cannot happen in any great number in rural areas where the next nearest high school is an hour away.

Further, such a solution as described above is based on the premise that there are actually supply teachers on a Council’s list and that they want to work full time filling vacancies. From my discussions with colleagues across the country getting supply teachers in at all to fill vacancies is exceptionally difficult, getting them to work part-time or for many weeks in a row is also difficult because many supply teachers are either retired teachers or part-time working parents who will not or cannot commit.

Another recent example of a Council trying to go the extra mile to recruit can be found in Aberdeen and Moray I believe, where they are now offering a “Golden Hello” for some posts – an additional £4-5k up front to get teachers to favour these rural areas over the central belt. I am positive this strategy will have worked on occasion but is clearly not the full answer given the number of vacancies and the continued problem of supply still found and of course all such deals come with “hand cuffs” keeping staff in their employ for a couple of years – not suitable for filling Maternity, long-term illness or vacancies caused by the 4 week resignation – 3 month appointment time.

Some of the solutions we in Oban High School employ are unique to us, some are used by all. We are the only state school I am aware of who have established their own subsidised staff accommodation to help attract staff to the area. I established this to cope with the issue of me appointing staff in June, only to find they would decline the post in August when the learned how difficult it is to get accommodation in a hugely popular and busy tourist destination. Additionally, we offer re-location expenses of up to £5k to encourage staff to move to this beautiful part of the world. Obviously they only access this facility when moving for permanent positions.

Even after offering the accommodation and financial incentives we do, we still struggle to attract staff to our successful school in the heart of a beautiful and vibrant area. Why? There are simply not enough suitably qualified teachers in some core subjects and even when there are, most prefer to stay in the central belt with the attractions and amenities that it provides.

From my discussions with teachers from across Scotland, with Government Ministers and with representatives from Education Scotland, the GTC and School Leaders Scotland, it is clear that there is a national crisis in staffing in rural areas in particular and in certain secondary subjects all across the country. Until this issue is resolved nationally, schools will be left with many classes full of children without a subject specialist teacher in front of them for many weeks, months and indeed in one other authority I am aware of for well over a year or more.

You may wish to know how we cope with such issues here in Oban. A few examples. We currently have a maternity vacancy in Gaelic which we are unable to fill because there are no suitable applicants willing to move here for a short term role. Our solution was to work with the Education Service and provide lessons on-line via a programme called e-Sgoil in partnership with Highland Council. We have a vacancy in Science (I mentioned earlier we filled it but a problem with a Visa led to yet another re-advert) and currently all our Science staff have had their timetables filled in an effort to maximise the amount of time pupils get Science specialists and not only supply teachers.

We also have two vacancies in Technical, one which arose in the Summer and which, like Science, are being covered internally by the remaining Technical teachers working beyond their normal hours to ensure the pupils get a qualified teacher on the whole. The second vacancy arose in December and was filled quickly but with a member of staff not available until August, causing us to have a short term vacancy in a subject which usually takes 6 months or more to fill. To make matters worse, this particular vacancy leaves us having to cover Engineering Science, which is a subject with even fewer qualified teachers that Home Economics. We also have an Art vacancy and a Support Teacher vacancy, both filled by qualified staff for much of the time, but not all. The remaining time we use our own internal cover arrangements like every school across the land.

With the knowledge that we have these staffing issues we have been working hard on long term solutions over the years. The staff accommodation and the relocation expenses are not insignificant enticements. We have, where possible linked with other schools to offer subject specific support across colleagues in other schools; though this requires the agreement of teachers to work after school to help pupils from another school as timetables between schools do not match. We have also used colleges to provide distance learning via the internet; but this requires college tutors to be available at the same time as all the pupils. If planned months in advance, this can work for small numbers. Forward planning also allows us to use our very close and successful partnership with the excellent Argyll College to run courses we find ourselves unable; though colleges also face the same recruitment issues as rural schools do and it is sheer luck if they have surplus when we have a shortage.

It has been noted that using social media as a way of attracting staff to the area works well. There are some successful examples of this having worked for a couple of primary schools in our area recently. We have a Facebook page, we use Twitter and we have our own You Tube Channel. We make our own in-house videos and use them to sell the school and Argyll / Oban as a beautiful place to live. However, if there are no specific subject teachers out there then no matter how much advertising one does, we won’t get any. What the social media campaigns do is attract even more potential recruits to the jobs where we have candidates and this increases the chance of getting the “best” candidate.

To enhance this opportunity further we have been fortunate to have had a local company Uncommon Knowledge work in partnership with us to run our media campaigns on our behalf and we hope their knowledge and experience will help yet further.

Finally, I have already managed to recruit from Northern Ireland and am due to visit Stranmillis College (part of Queen’s University) near Belfast next week in an effort to recruit more staff from an excellent university.

So, what does a Heidie do? …. Spend lots of time trying to recruit staff with the support of colleagues in school, within the Council, across Scotland and abroad.

I find it very frustrating that we have pupils who have an interruption to their learning due to staffing issues but equally pleasing we have so many staff willing to go the extra mile to help and support them by teaching classes beyond their maximum class contact; doing extra study support after school, during weekends and holidays; being available by email at all times of the night.  I am very lucky to have so many good staff… I just wish I had more.

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Author: Peter Bain

I have been the Head Teacher of Oban High School since 2008. I previously worked as a DHT in Eyemouth High School in the Scottish Borders; as a Principal Teacher in Balwearie High School, Kirkcaldy and Kirkland High School, Methil; and as a class teacher in Trinity Academy in Edinburgh and Viewforth High School in Kirkcaldy. Although born in sunny Leith near the hallowed ground of Easter Road, I am really from Musselburgh where I spent most of the first 30 years of my life. I went to Edinburgh University in 1990 and attained an MA (Hons) and an MSc before going to Strathclyde to pick up my teacher qualification in 1997. I returned to Edinburgh University to complete my Scottish Qualification for Headship in 2008. The purpose of my blog is to give an insight into my working life, although a wee bit of my personal life and views will inevitably arise. Although I am writing about my experiences at work and these are shared by the school's social media functions, this is not an Oban High School blog and the views expressed are all my own.

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