Councils have been accused of using government-funded probationer teachers as cheap “cannon fodder” to fill vacancies, fuelling fears that qualified individuals are being displaced and driven to quit.

It comes amid growing pressure on ministers to agree a minimum national staffing standard alongside reformed arrangements for providing crucial on-the-job experience.

Critics claim the current process is causing significant recruitment problems, with cash-strapped authorities seeking to cut costs by using probationers to fill vacancies that would otherwise be open to their fully-qualified colleagues.

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The result is that experienced teachers and those who have completed probation face a prolonged struggle to secure permanent work. Many observers fear the situation is pushing increasing numbers away from the profession, particularly in the early phase of their careers.

According to data published by TES and the #LetUsTeach campaign, 3,617 probationers are expected to enter schools in 2021/22 – a rise of just over 500 on last year. Bosses at the major teacher organisations have urged ministers to look at ways in which the scheme could be centrally funded and supernumerary so it does not affect the availability of vacancies.

HeraldScotland: Seamus Searson said there were a range of problems that had to be addressed.Seamus Searson said there were a range of problems that had to be addressed.

Seamus Searson, general secretary at the SSTA union, said: “What’s happened in the past is that some [probationers]… are actually taking on posts, that would be normally filled by a permanent teacher.

“The advantage of that to… authorities is that that’s x number of teachers who are given to them, basically. And some of them are in the way that it should be, in that they’re going there as supernumerary to the school. But the majority of them will have been filling a vacancy... The authorities realise they’re getting someone to fill a vacancy for much less. We’re at the stage where we’re using probationers while they’re cheap and then getting rid them afterwards and then we wonder why we can’t get teachers later.

“What we’re finding is that they’re filling up spaces in schools with probationers and that’s not helpful. The probationers need to get experience but they’re often used as cannon fodder.

“You’ve got a ludicrous situation where you’ve someone who’s qualified and, because you’ve got to pay them a wage, they’re expensive. The councils would rather have the cheap teacher to fill the vacancy and save money. If they can get a good number of probationers, that can be quite a large amount of money saved for the council."

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Warnings over the current system come amid growing fears that Scotland is failing to retain many newly qualified teachers (NQTs).

In April, The Herald revealed more than 2,600 individuals had dropped their professional registration or allowed it to lapse over the last five years. The EIS union also said at the time that over 500 NQTs from the 2020 graduation group had disappeared from the register.

Mr Searson added: “The downside to [the current arrangement] is that those teachers who are qualified then struggle to find a job. The ones who are qualified... are better teachers. The probationer is a beginner.”

Jim Thewliss, general secretary at School Leaders Scotland, said: “There will be departments out there who have had probationer after probationer after probationer – year on year on year – to fill a vacancy. If you are going to guarantee a person a post for a year as a probationer teacher, then there has got to be a position in a school for that person.

“The only way in which you can provide that position, and make sure that it doesn’t exclude somebody from a job, is to make it supernumerary within a school – fully funded and supernumerary. If across the country there was a basic minimum national staffing standard, and the funding was provided to do that… one of the good reasons for having that there is that, if it is there, and you fully fund the probationer scheme and make it supernumerary, then you are not impacting at all on the basic staffing standard.”

HeraldScotland: Larry Flanagan said his union would support a national staffing standard.Larry Flanagan said his union would support a national staffing standard.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said increasing permanent teaching posts was an “immediate” challenge given the need to ensure education recovery in the wake of Covid-19. 

He added: "A variety of mechanisms could  be explored  to bypass the usual Scottish Government Local Authority stand-off around funding mechanisms: legislation to introduce statutory lowering of pupil  class sizes, starting with P2 and P3; SNCT agreement on a cut to the maximum contractual class contact time for teachers; and the central funding of the probationer scheme to ensure that all probationers were effectively supernumerary, thereby ending the perceived bed blocking which happens when some Councils fill vacancies with probationers, whilst also creating more space for probationers to flourish and bring their undoubted enthusiasm and talent into the school system.  

"The EIS would support, also, the introduction of a national staffing standard to be applied across the country, ensuring greater equity for all.”   

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A spokesman for Cosla, which represents local authorities, said: “Councils do a brilliant job in bringing probationer teachers through the system and preparing them for life in the classroom. By the same token, councils are also committed to fair and open recruitment processes. Throughout the pandemic and moving into recovery, councils are assessing the needs of children and young people to ensure they recruit additional teachers as required.

“However, this is not an exact science and recruitment needs vary across the country, and work is ongoing with the Scottish Government and partners to address where there are shortages and need.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “We are working closely with Cosla regarding the employment of teachers for the next academic year, and will continue to do everything we can to maximise the number of jobs available for teachers, including permanent posts.

“We are also providing significant funding of £44.6 million in 2020-21 to local authorities for the Teacher Induction Scheme, which provides a guaranteed one-year training post in a local authority to every eligible student graduating with a teaching qualification from one of Scotland’s universities.”

The General Teaching Council for Scotland was approached for comment.