The foreign exodus of Scottish teachers shows no signs of slowing – and once abroad, return may not be an option
Any job interview is a potentially life-changing opportunity, but the teachers that gathered in Glasgow earlier this month must have known better than most that, if successful, things would be very different for them come the start of the next school year. Teachanywhere, the education division of the global recruitment firm Randstad, was in town conducting interviews for a recruitment drive by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), the body that administers the gulf emirate’s state schools. The advert in the jobs pages of a daily Scottish broadsheet told applicants they would be part of “a wide ranging school reform project”, promised them tax-free starting salaries of £28,000 per year – almost £7,000 more than a new teacher’s pay in Scotland – as well as benefits including flights, medical insurance, free housing and bonus payments. “My understanding is that these adverts for jobs get an enormous response,” says Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), unsurprisingly, especially given the odds of success: ADEC weren’t looking for a handful of teachers, but 100.
There are no official figures documenting how many Scottish-trained teachers leave each year to take up employment overseas. However, with Scottish teacher numbers continuing to fall, unions claim that the exodus is growing. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the number of people contacting us to ask how to get support from the union overseas, and a considerable number of them are moving to other countries because that’s where they can find work,” says Ballinger.
A lack of jobs at home remains the primary reason why Scottish teachers look overseas for work; Roddy Hammond, founder of Worldteach, a Renfrewshire-based educational recruitment firm that also worked on the ADEC drive, cites a number of cases where probationers have accepted overseas job offers only to refuse them when they’ve been offered permanent postings at the schools where they trained. However, as awareness grows of the opportunities for work overseas, lifestyle factors are becoming more important in teachers’ decisions, making a move abroad as attractive to those at the end of their careers as it is to newly qualified teachers looking for work.
“We’re still seeing a lot of interest from teachers who are getting deals to retire early. Some of them may be as young as 50. They may have had children young, or their children have grown up and left home – they’ve no longer got quite the same responsibilities, and it’s the perfect time in their personal life to experience a bit of the ‘expat lifestyle’,” says Hammond. “I’ve spoken to four [teachers] in the last month who have made the decision to move their family [to] places like Canada and Australia because the benefits of being a teacher in those countries are much better,” Ballinger says. “That includes salary, pension, and lifestyle as well – they are able to provide a far better lifestyle for their family in other countries.”
Professional morale is another key motivating factor; Ballinger says her members have expressed a view “that they’re living and working in an environment that does not value teachers and where teachers’ conditions of service are being eroded at an alarming rate. They’re being offered jobs in countries where they’re told teachers are valued members of society and where the conditions they’re being offered are far better than the conditions they have in Scotland.” In the past, private and international schools that already operated predominantly or wholly in English dominated the range of overseas teaching opportunities. However, recent years have seen large-scale recruitment drives by state education systems in countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE): places that have profited immensely from their mineral wealth – particularly in oil – over the past decade and see education as insurance taken out for when that wealth runs out.
Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to take advantage of the persistently high price of oil in order to invest in education, building the country’s first ‘western style’ university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in 2009 and hiring hundreds of western teachers for its state schools. The UAE is in the fourth year of a ten-year process to completely overhaul its education system, instituting a fully bilingual curriculum to produce fluent Arabic and English speakers. The aim is to produce young people ready for the global economy that both “think like westerners and think like Arabs,” according to Diane Jacoutot, general manager of Teachanywhere. The next country in line looking to overhaul its national curriculum and hire teachers in the West, Jacoutot indicates, is Kazakhstan.
Abu Dhabi, however, could remain one of the top destinations for emigrating Scottish teachers, with several designers of the emirate’s new curriculum hailing from Scotland. The city has already recruited up to 2000 overseas teachers in recent years, and observers suggest there is a clear demand for Scots at ADEC, reflected in the recent recruitment drive – whose only stops in the UK were in London and Glasgow.
“The training of Scottish teachers has a reputation worldwide as being excellent, and that means that they’re highly prized in countries overseas. I do know of people that have been employed at a very high level in other countries developing their educational systems and their curriculum,” says Ballinger. More than that, Hammond reveals that ADEC is actively targeting Scottish teachers for its schools by lowering the entry requirements for its teaching posts.
“There are people involved in making decisions in these countries that understand the Scottish system,” he says. “When ADEC were interviewing in Scotland, they lowered their requirements by accepting applications from Scottish teachers who had completed their probationer year, whereas teachers trained in England still had to have two years’ experience.” Hammond adds that Scottish educationalists developing ADEC’s new curriculum, “through understanding and knowing the Scottish system, had some influence to make an allowance for Scottish probationers.” For Hammond, the seemingly unquenchable thirst for Scottish educators represents “a good solution to any period of oversupply,” and says there is no shortage of opportunities: “The demand that we have significantly outstrips the supply. We struggle to find enough people.” Teaching overseas is keeping Scottish teachers that would otherwise be unemployed or in the supply system trained and in the profession.
Others see it differently.
Ballinger says the flow of Scottish teachers overseas represents a kind of ‘brain drain’, with the costs of training teachers borne exclusively by taxpayers here, while the benefits of their training flow to communities overseas. “We’re seeing a double detriment,” she says, “first, because we’re seeing the cost of educating these people through a degree and a postgraduate qualification in teaching; then there’s training them through their probationary year. Finally, when they’re at the position of being productive members of society and having a huge amount to contribute to the Scottish economy, they’re taking that expertise elsewhere. Our loss is not just in their brainpower, it’s also in the contribution they can make to Scottish society.” There is also little hope that in the current job market, teachers who gain experience overseas will be able to return to put it to use in Scotland.
“I’m not aware of any that have secured permanent positions back here. I just don’t think there are enough new permanent roles opening up. What’s more typical is that teachers move on to a new country or a different region of the world,” says Hammond. “We have a tendency to not necessarily recognise the work that’s been done overseas, so they may be coming back to begin at the bottom of the pay scale,” adds Ballinger. “With falling teacher numbers there’s very little promise of a job in Scotland, and until that changes, I don’t think we’re going to have many returning teachers. Why would you give up a job in another country where you’re paid a great deal more and have better conditions of service to return to Scotland and probably not get a job?”