Concern for pupils hit by teacher shortage

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Image: iStock

Campaigners and unions have voiced alarm at increasing reports of learning support staff having to cover for teachers in Scotland. Sam Phipps reports

A small rise in the official number of secondary teachers in Scotland has failed to quell worries over staffing, with the spotlight falling on the areas of learning support and supply.

In 2017, there were 23,150 secondary teachers, up from 22,957 the previous year, the Scottish government announced in December. That is a rise of 0.8 per cent.

However, unions gave only a qualified welcome, pointing out that in 2007, when the SNP came to power, there were 27,681 secondary teachers. The new count represents a drop of 16 per cent since then.

Also, most of the extra staffing is being paid for out of the new Scotland Attainment Fund, at the discretion of headteachers targeting particular shortages, rather than an increases across the board.

A particular concern centres on the lack of supply teachers, which unions and campaigners say is having a knock-on effect on the provision of learning support staff, who are being increasingly drafted in to cover short-term and long-term gaps.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), said: “The staffing situation is very, very difficult and we hear about it from parents on a regular basis.

“Classroom and learning support assistants (called different names in different parts of the country) do a critical job but are reducing in number. And they are clearly not supply teachers. It’s a real cause for concern if they are being used as such.”

Lena Gillies, national development officer at Dyslexia Scotland, said: “Dyslexia Scotland is concerned by anecdotal reports that in some instances learning support staff are being diverted to cover for supply teachers.

“Inevitably, this has the potential to reduce specialist support for pupils with additional support needs, such as dyslexia. We believe, however, that supporting those pupils is not just the responsibility of learning support staff, under Curriculum for Excellence, literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing are the responsibility of all teachers – and all teachers should have at least a basic knowledge about dyslexia.”

The organisation has developed a free online Addressing Dyslexia Toolkit with funding from the Scottish government, which all teachers and support staff can access.

“While this will go some way to supporting pupils with dyslexia, we do have concerns if learning support staff are increasingly unavailable to provide specialist support,” Ms Gillies added.

Euan Duncan, professional officer of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said supply teachers were becoming “scarcer and scarcer, and with some authorities still paying peanuts for single day supply, this is a growing issue”.

He cited North Ayrshire’s approach to the Local Negotiating Committee for Teachers (LNCT) in March 2017 for permission to temporarily relocate pupil support teachers, taking a planned approach which ensured that protocols were in place.

He continued: “However, some schools are tending to find themselves with shortages and are simply relying on Section 2.8 of the SNCT Handbook (Specific Duties of Teachers) to reallocate learning support staff to teach classes on an ad hoc basis. This is sometimes unplanned (to cover staff absence) or a more regular timetabled commitment where staff cannot be found from within the school complement.”

Mr Duncan described taking learning support teachers away from their jobs supporting youngsters with a whole spectrum of needs as a “utilitarian” approach: “While it meets the needs of the greatest number of children when there are staff shortages, it does nothing to help youngsters with individual needs to overcome barriers to their learning.”

Furthermore, many teachers in support roles have undertaken additional qualifications (e.g. dyslexia or autism guidance), thereby limiting the time they have available to focus on the subject they initially qualified to teach, he said.

“They are likely to be less up-to-date with course and assessment requirements, and may not be instantly ready to teach what is required without some subject-specific refresher time.”

One pastoral support teacher told SecEd that time set aside for support duties was often consumed by meetings and cover requirements: “This reduces the amount of time available for supporting the most vulnerable and needy youngsters in my caseload, and pushes a lot of work into evenings and weekends (e.g. report and reference-writing which don’t require pupil contact).”

He said that a “good” week is one that comes in at less than 50 hours, and 70-plus hours is not unusual: “The big issue is that no teacher wants to see their pupils let down by a failing system.”

Shortages in supply staff intensified after 2011, when Holyrood and council umbrella group Cosla agreed to cut pay rates as part of a package to save £45 million.

The move, backed by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) at the time, meant short-term supply staff had to work at a rate of £78-a-day for their first five consecutive days before their pay rose to the normal rate of £145.

The government said the deal protected frontline teaching jobs but it soon became clear it was leading to shortages as supply staff looked at better-paid alternatives.

Their pay has risen since then, but the shortages have worsened amid more widespread teacher shortages, with cuts to local authority budgets and many in the profession reaching retirement age.

Half of Scotland’s 32 councils had a shortage of supply teachers in secondary – and 20 in primary – according to a survey in April 2016. More acute problems were reported in some subject areas including sciences and maths, home economics, technical studies, computing and business.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the SSTA, said he believed that many of the extra 543 teachers announced by the government in December (a total covering primary, secondary and special schools) were former supply staff. And a monthly census, rather than annual, would give a truer picture, he added.

Larry Flanagan, the EIS general secretary, said he welcomed the reported overall rise in the number of teachers employed in Scotland. He added: “However, we are disappointed to see yet another drop in the number of teachers working in early years and have concerns over the sustainability of posts funded through Attainment Challenge money.”

A total of 506 of the 543 posts have been directly funded through the Attainment Scotland Fund, the government said.

Responding to the rise in teacher numbers, Carla Hanson, a spokesperson at Cosla, said: “There is no doubt that many councils, facing shortages in certain subjects and in some communities, have gone the extra distance to ensure that all children and young people have the teachers they need.

“However, this must be seen in light of the reduction in real-terms of local authority budgets. We also need to endeavour to ensure there are other key professionals required to improve the lives of children.”

Asked about the reports of learning support staff and supply teachers, she said: “We aren’t in a position to confirm that.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Now that 95 per cent of children with additional support needs are educated in mainstream schools, all teachers provide support to pupils with additional support needs, not just ‘support for learning’ teachers. To single out support for learning teachers is inaccurate.

“We remain committed to maintaining teacher numbers nationally, and ensuring that we have the right number of teachers, with the right skills, in the right places, to educate our young people.”

However, Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said: “Giving schools the funds to reverse a small fraction of budget cuts isn’t a success and the SNP should not portray it that way.”


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