This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

As reported today by my colleague Cat Stewart, we are facing an increasingly serious problem with teacher retention in Scotland.  

Figures released by the Lib Dems show that, since 2018, more than 1300 new teachers have walked away from the classroom entirely within the first five years. They’ve not just stopped teaching in schools – they’ve given up their right to do so. 

Dig into the data and you see that the biggest increases seem to have come from new teachers leaving the profession within three or four years of having qualified: in 2018, 110 individuals fell into this category, but by last year that figure had almost doubled. 

Official data doesn’t seem to show any particular increase in the number of probationary teachers (those in their first year out of university) failing to complete their famously difficult induction year, so the problem isn’t – for example – unsuitable candidates dropping out because they clearly can’t cope. Something else is happening to drive newly qualified teachers not just out of schools but out of the profession entirely. 

So what’s going on? 

First and foremost, it’s important to understand just how much strain the school system is under. I used to compare it to an engine that was constantly being revved past the red line and warned that, in the end, that situation could only end one way – in a disruptive and expensive breakdown. Things have only gotten worse since then. 

A common complaint I hear from teachers these days is that the apparent refusal to staff schools beyond the absolute bare minimum (and sometimes not even to that level) is making a difficult job increasingly impossible.

Scotland’s teachers already have less time to prepare lessons than colleagues in almost any other developed country – a problem that this government has failed to address despite their manifesto promises – and that issue is exacerbated even further by current staffing levels. An experienced teacher might know how to cope with all that, but for increasing numbers of new teachers it is just too much. 

A lack of job security is also causing major problems. Too many teachers, especially young teachers, are having to get by on temporary contracts or by operating under what are effectively zero hours conditions.

There are too many instances of schools being forced to cycle probationers through the same posts year after year. There are too many councils treating new teachers as little more than spreadsheet fodder.

Let’s just be straight – a stable career is supposed to be one of the big draws into teaching, and if that stops being the case we’re going to be in very serious trouble. 

Of course, the present crisis of violence and aggression in schools (and elsewhere in society) isn’t helping either.

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Last month, we exclusively revealed union data showing that incidents of pupil-on-teacher violence are a ‘daily’ occurrence in nearly two-thirds of schools, and that both the number and severity of such incidents has increased significantly post-Covid. 

The government’s own figures then confirmed the nature and scale of the problem. It should have been a wake-up call – instead, education secretary Jenny Gilruth talked about the need for staff training and updated recorded processes. 

Behaviour management is one of the most difficult things for new teachers to master and now it is more difficult than ever. Veteran teachers are leaving the profession because they say they can’t cope with the present circumstances, so how on earth are people still finding their feet supposed to handle it? 

When you stand back and look at the whole picture, is it any wonder that we’re struggling to hold on to teachers? 

Now, it’s worth noting at this point that the total number of registered teachers has actually risen over the last five years, from just under 76,000 in 2018/19 to nearly 82,000 in the most recent figures, so we’re not talking about an absolute and universal collapse in teacher numbers across the country. 

But the number of teachers actually working in schools has been falling despite government promises. The education secretary has decided to try to solve this problem by effectively threatening to fine councils, which definitely doesn’t sound like the sort of approach that will just make things even worse. 

The Herald: Education secretary Jenny Gilruth warned that if teacher numbers fell, the Scottish Government would 'recoup funding which has been given for this purpose'Education secretary Jenny Gilruth warned that if teacher numbers fell, the Scottish Government would 'recoup funding which has been given for this purpose' (Image: Newsquest)
Which brings us to the politics of it all. 

The Lib Dems are already promising to restore principal teachers and tackle the lack of stable employment options, the Tories are planning to offer something called a New Deal for Teachers (a phrase I’m sure I’ve seen somewhere before… maybe in a book about Scottish schools) and Labour aren’t going to be far behind with a proposal of their own.  

As for the Greens, I hear more complaints about them from teachers than any other party. The recurring theme is one of betrayal, of a party (and a spokesperson in particular) that was happy to talk the talk prior to the last election but is now unwilling to risk upsetting the coalition partners. The ministerial jobs, it seems, are the most important thing these days. 

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And finally there’s the SNP. They used to say that education was their top priority, but the actions never even came close to matching the rhetoric. 

It should never, ever be forgotten that this is the party of the 2020 exam algorithm – the one that wanted to suppress the grades of the poorest pupils during a global pandemic and dared to say they were doing it to ensure fairness. At the next election, if they really are judged on their record, they’re going to be in trouble.