By Douglas Weir,

Former Dean of Education at the University of Strathclyde

THE ongoing anxiety over teacher shortages seems to indicate that the Scottish Government’s recent approaches to teacher recruitment have fallen short. We need an imaginative and long-term solution which helps more undergraduates enter a career in secondary teaching. At the same time, we need to ask whether our current numbers and types of teacher are the ones we really need.

Your recent article about a lack of teaching time for Advanced Higher pupils is a case in point. Most of our Advanced Higher pupils already know that they will get a university place and therefore sixth year should prepare them for the “stand on your own feet” reality of university, rather than filling their timetable with teacher contact.

In the same vein, why do more than 60 per cent of an age group stay in school right through to sixth year? Almost half will not go immediately to university and might be better taking an earlier step towards independence through experience in college, training or work. If there are many staying in school to fifth and sixth year through a form of inertia, we need to act on this, and staff the senior school accordingly.

Even so, there will still be a need to recruit teachers, but perhaps different types of teacher. There are too few graduates in some “shortage” subjects and too many other labour market opportunities for them. We are therefore unlikely to fill the gaps in the workforce by more intensive teacher education courses or financial inducements. We need to reconsider the qualifications and expertise required of a secondary teacher. For example, how much subject knowledge is needed for a secondary teacher to be effective? The minimum subject content requirements laid down by the GTC for Scotland are relatively slight and a teacher could have less than one-quarter of their degree content in the secondary subject that they are teaching, with the remainder in other subjects which they might, but do not, teach. Does this make them less effective than the graduate with more degree content in the single subject that they teach?

If we use that concept of the “generalist” degree to help determine the size and type of the teacher workforce, we can envisage more of the teacher workforce being trained to teach two or three subjects. If they were teaching all of their subjects regularly, even if only in S1, 2, and 3, they would be perfectly competent. If a broad general education in these years is a national priority, then we need to develop a teacher workforce specialising in that phase. Therefore many graduates with broadly-based degrees are a potential source of “new” teachers, helping to ensure that teachers in “shortage” subjects can be better deployed.

In addition, most current teachers have taken a degree and then a teacher education course. Only a few had the opportunity to enter a course leading to a career in teaching earlier in that process. Yet there is no evidence that the few who have undertaken that more integrated programme are less capable teachers, and some indicative evidence that they are in fact better teachers. The integrated programme can offer more flexibility and a better match between its content and the school curriculum. It might even contribute to lower teacher wastage because those who enter teaching through such routes have had a longer preparation and more time to review their career choice.

If we spent more energy recruiting large numbers of second and third year undergraduates (and their HND equivalents in colleges) into a secondary teaching career track, what impact would that have on teacher shortages?