‘Schools in crisis’ over staff shortages

Teachers and pupils are being affected by the issue in the city's classrooms, education chiefs have been warned. Picture: John Devlin

Teachers and pupils are being affected by the issue in the city's classrooms, education chiefs have been warned. Picture: John Devlin

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SCHOOLS in the Capital are “cracking” under increasingly chronic staff shortages, teachers and union leaders have warned.

Pupils left without a teacher and instructed to complete online worksheets for entire lessons, children sent home because there is no-one to teach them and school assemblies being extended by more than 50 minutes to cover for staff absence have all been reported.

Claims that staff are 
“crumbling” because of the pressure come amid plans to “rotate” teachers between schools in a bid to spread talent and share best practice.

But union bosses said the measure was a “sticking plaster” aimed at plugging gaps caused by a fall in staff numbers and those coming into the profession, as well as schools’ inability to obtain steady supply cover.

There have been warnings that supply teachers, faced with average daily pay of only around £80, which is often less after deductions for free periods, are turning away from schools and opting to work in bars and restaurants instead.

It has also emerged headteachers and other members of senior management are regularly being drafted into classrooms as a result of the shortages.

The most recent figures show the number of registered supply teachers in Edinburgh is at a four-year low, dropping from 858 to 787 between 2014 and this year.

Scottish Government figures show overall staff numbers in Edinburgh fell from 3212 in 2013 to 3159 last year.

One city council-employed supply teacher with nearly 20 years’ experience, almost ten of which have been spent in the Capital, and who asked not to be named, said: “In schools I have either personally witnessed, or regularly heard from other supply staff, [of] assemblies being extended to the end of period one and beyond, higher students regularly being untaught and left with worksheets to chase up on the internet for extended periods – as they can be legally left without a teacher as they’re older – and children sent home.

“Permanent staff [are] in tears as they crumble under the extreme workload of endless extra duties every week, [with] special needs classes merged or individuals decanted to other classes, [and] non-specialists being preferred and employed rather than hire a specialist for a whole absence.”

He stressed the problem was also one of cover staff being unwilling to accept work for a “Tesco-rate” gross daily wage packet of around £80.

“With so many supplies per school available, surely business managers would have 15 to 20 or more professional, fully registered cover staff each to choose from every day,” said the supply teacher. “What’s the problem? The answer is that the supplies are doing something else. I know of only one who will occasionally work for what is referred to as the ‘Tesco’ rate.

“The rest have simply refused to do it. They are in shops, bars, signed on, waitressing, overseas teaching English as a foreign language, or something else wholly unrelated to teaching.”

The claims come amid ongoing negotiation between education bosses, teachers and unions over fixed-term staff rotation. The News previously revealed how the voluntary measure was aimed initially at headteachers, who were set to be moved from campus to campus every five to seven years.

The proposal has since been extended to include other staff, although there is no indication of whether a single timescale will be applied.

Union leaders have echoed warnings of the impact of teacher shortages and said discussions about rotation were evidence of education bosses trying to “cover up the gaps”.

Seamus Searson, general secretary at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said: “Members in Edinburgh have been telling me that as people have retired, they are not being replaced with an equivalent staff member. Why aren’t teachers coming into the profession? It’s workload, pressure and the fact wages have not gone up over the last few years.”

He added: “[Rotating teachers] is really just a sticking plaster for papering over the cracks – they’re covering up vacancies.”

And he said an increasingly acute problem in obtaining supply teachers was making the situation in Edinburgh even worse.

“One member in Edinburgh has said the agency they use cannot provide anyone at all,” he added.

“So the senior teachers, the headteachers, are doing more – they are being taken away from their duties. All they are doing is the work of a supply teacher and not doing the job they are paid to do.

“The SSTA would rather engage with the employer to deal with the real shortage of teachers across the Capital.”

Parent leaders said falling teacher numbers would be of huge concern to families.

Lindsay Law, parent representative on the council’s education committee, said: “We do know that teachers are facing ever-increasing pressures to do more administrative work and achieve ever-increasing standards in exams.

“Education needs more investment, and we need the UK government to acknowledge that austerity measures affecting local councils have a direct impact on children across the country.”

City chiefs said they were committed to maintaining teacher numbers at current levels.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “We are aware that there are ongoing issues with supply, not just in Edinburgh, but across Scotland.

“However, while I have had constructive discussions with other union representatives and many individual union members, to date I have never been approached by 
SSTA on any of the issues raised. I am also not aware of the SSTA raising these issues internally through local negotiating bodies, but I would clearly encourage them to do so.”

ANALYSIS

By Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland

The teacher shortage is Scotland-wide – not just Edinburgh. There’s a real shortage of primary school teachers and there’s been a long-standing problem of getting applications for headteacher positions.

Members in Edinburgh are telling us they are struggling to get supply teachers.

It means you are left with classes that need to be covered by someone and that could mean splitting up classes which don’t have a teacher and distributing them among classes which do.

But more often it would mean a headteacher taking a class, or an assembly with multiple classes.

A headteacher might be leading an assembly for 40 minutes with multiple classes, so it becomes a way of managing that time and staffing pressure.

Assemblies have their place. But the ideal would be that children are in class, with a class teacher, during that assembly time. And it means headteachers are being taken away from core leadership duties.

This action is schools trying to respond to the lack of staffing in comparison to their normal staffing complement, and that raises concerns about the quality of pupil learning.

I have heard about additional assemblies happening up and down Scotland, and I would be very surprised if they are not happening in Edinburgh as well.

Calls to release Castlebrae probe report

OPPOSITION figures have called on city bosses to release a report into alleged child protection breaches at Castlebrae Community High.

The report – which it is understood probes how senior officials handled claims against Derek Curran, the school’s former headteacher – was submitted to city council chief executive Sue Bruce in September last year.

Elected members today questioned the length of time which has elapsed since and criticised the fact they have yet to be granted access to the document.

We revealed in January how senior education manager Karen Prophet was suspended after an inquiry into whether she responded quickly and robustly enough to allegations that Mr Curran, 54, behaved in a sexually improper manner towards pupils at schools where he was employed.

Ms Prophet is understood to have had a close working relationship with Mr Curran, who has also been charged with domestic abuse.

In a separate recent case, Castlebrae biology teacher Gavin Atkinson, 56, was charged with sending inappropriate messages to a pupil and assaulting another student, both understood to be under 16.

It is understood he has been sacked by the council, as the Crown Office continues to review police reports regarding charges against him.

Tory leader Councillor Cameron Rose said: “The sooner we get thorough answers the sooner we can restore confidence for the community and for those involved. I have been given assurances that appropriate action is being taken but I have been refused sight of the external investigation report and its recommendations.”

But Ms Bruce said she had instigated a number of actions.

She said: “I have briefed senior councillors, including Cllr Rose, to reassure them that appropriate steps are being taken. However, as a number of inquiries are still ongoing, including the involvement of Police Scotland, it is not possible to release any details from the report while these continue.”