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‘We just want what’s best for our children’: Why is it so hard to recruit teachers to our islands?

Ollaberry Primary School outdoor learning setting.
Council officials are on the hunt for a permanent head teacher to steer the ship at Ollaberry Primary School

Ask Shetlanders to describe their home and they’ll tell you that it is friendly, welcoming and community-minded.

But despite the obvious advantages to island life, it is still a struggle to recruit teachers –  and other important positions, for that matter.

In this piece, we talk to those who are living the situation as parents and recruiters – and we look at the possible reasons for what is a problem affecting many communities in the north and north east, not just our islands.

Many of Shetland’s schools are small, creating a sense of family and community. But small schools often mean combined classes, and teachers – including head teachers – taking on multiple roles.

That’s the case at Ollaberry Primary School, where the council has been trying to fill a permanent teaching head teacher role for over a year.

After a temporary placement filled the gap last year, the school re-advertised the position in May.

But there haven’t been any takers.

Instead, Ollaberry will start the year by sharing a head teacher with nearby Urafirth Primary School who is willing to help.

There are a number of reasons why it can be difficult to recruit to the islands.

Parents understand the realities but, more than anything, they just want a stable education for their children.

What’s the situation?

The Shetland Islands Council has been recruiting for a new head teacher at Ollaberry since February last year, when Marianne Raikes left the role after 17 years.

Last year, Julia McGinlay served in a temporary role, but she has since returned to her previous post.

So now, the only option is for Urafirth head teacher Wendy Fraser to oversee Ollaberry for the first term – all the while continuing her administrative responsibilities at her home school.

Helen Budge, Director of Children’s Services for Shetland Islands Council. Supplied by Shetland Islands Council

Director of children’s services Helen Budge recognises that the situation is far from ideal.

“Because we’ve not recruited one, we put out an opportunity for our current head teachers to tack on a shared management role.

“This community was not really keen on that as an option. They were hesitant about going down that route. Obviously, they’d like to have a head teacher all the time. It’ll be another community in the area that they’ll be linking with, and [the head teacher] won’t be there all the time.

“But they understand that if we don’t use this option, then they won’t have a head teacher to start the year.”

‘We just want what’s best for our children’

But for parents at a school like Ollaberry, whose pupils are on the cusp of their second first day of classes under a temporary headship, the situation is more simple.

Parent council member David Brown said the parents understand the strains on the council. But temporary solutions can only go so far.

Ollaberry head teacher
Pupils will be back in their seats in a few days, but 2021-2022 will be the second year in a row that students begin the term with a temporary head teacher at Ollaberry Primary School. Supplied by Shetland Islands Council

“I think in the short term it’s fine for the shared headship. But ultimately, we’d like a dedicated head for Ollaberry Primary School in its own right.

“We’re a very welcoming community. We just want what’s best for our children, we want a really good, stable education system in place.

“We’re in a situation now where we just need a new head teacher and we’re very keen to get anybody who’s keen to do it.

“If they fancy moving up to Shetland they’d be very, very welcome.”

A history of excellence

According to Education Scotland inspection reports, Ollaberry has a history of quality education.

In 2013, it became one of only five schools in Scotland to have ever earned “excellent” ratings in all five inspection categories.

In a letter that year, HM Inspector May Geddes said that she saw practices at Ollaberry that she would like to share with other schools.

Yet even a school with such a glowing history is struggling to attract someone to fill its top post.

Ollaberry head teacher
Like many schools on the islands, Ollaberry makes the most of outdoor spaces for learning opportunities . Supplied by Shetland Islands Council

The Ollaberry head teacher job listing describes the structure of the 20-pupil school: two composite primary classes P1-4 and P5-7, with two teachers and support staff led by a teaching head teacher.

The job pays £56,787 per year, plus a yearly £2,265 Distant Islands Allowance. Mrs Budge said that a number of factors have contributed to the job going unfilled for so long.

“It’s one of our peerier schools, so the salary that it attracts is not a big differential between a teacher at the top of the scale.

“But we’ll be asking them to not only teach a class but also do all the leadership and the management of a head teacher that doesn’t have a teaching commitment. And we know that’s difficult.”

Anyone interested in the job who has not been a head teacher before will also have to complete their Standard for Headship accreditation, she said. That means extra hours and extra training.

Not just Shetland’s problem

Shetland doesn’t have a monopoly on struggling to fill vacancies, nor is it a problem reserved for island councils. Councils across the north and north east have struggled to recruit teachers, social workers and childminders for years.

In 2015, representatives from Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Highland, Western Isles, Orkney, Shetland and Argyll and Bute councils met in Aberdeen to discuss a national task force to help tackle the teaching recruitment crisis in the north of Scotland.

In 2018, Highland Council launched a recruitment drive in an attempt to fill positions at 10 schools, including four head teachers. The council even asked for public input on how to solve the problem.

More recently, a group of parents in the rural Highland village of Ullapool have banded together to face what they say is an ‘unprecedented childcare crisis.’  They are struggling to recruit carers to the village and have called on MSP Maree Todd to help find innovative ways to recruit childminders.

Ollaberry head teacher job could be ‘a real opportunity’

Despite the difficulties in hiring, the Ollaberry post isn’t without its benefits. And they are part of what makes Shetland an inviting place to live and work, Mrs Budge said.

“There’s a community feel to all of our schools. The parents are very involved in the work of the school. They’re really interested in how their bairns are getting on.”

“It’s a real opportunity for somebody who’d like to try a managerial post, without losing that teaching commitment and the engagement with the bairns.”

The council is also hiring other school positions, from support positions to central office staff. Ms Budge said that it’s often difficult to decide whether to promote from within or recruit to Shetland. Each has benefits, she said, but either way, there is a position left open at some level.

Friendly, welcoming, community-minded. And still hiring.

But the secret to a quick hire – or, indeed, any hire – for Ollaberry still remains elusive.

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