COUNCILS across the north of Scotland are joining forces to tackle a teacher shortage that they have failed to address for years.
Education chiefs in Highland stress that it is a national problem. But the current vacancy list reveals that even Inverness schools have been impacted and a regional summit on the issue is planned for next month.
The clock is ticking in the wake of a worrying report considered by Highland councillors last month warning that more than a third of school staff were expected to retire within the next decade.
Almost 2500 Highland school staff are already over 50.
The region’s head of education Jim Steven, a former maths teacher and long-serving ex head teacher at Invergordon Academy, told The Inverness Courier this week that he could work "into my 90s," such is the current demand for experienced staff.
Highland launched an extensive review of its recruiting programme almost two years ago at a time it needed to fill 28 teacher vacancies.
There are currently 19 school vacancies in Highland. A head teacher is sought for Lochaber High School and 12 primary class teachers are needed along with six secondary school teachers.
Many more positions are being processed following a flood of recent job advertisements.
"The recruitment issue has been growing year by year and it’s concerning," Mr Steven said. "To put things in context, we get extra Scottish Government funding for meeting a pupil-teacher ratio, and Highland has met or been better than the target figure."
He has pro-actively managed to create a £25,000 annual recruitment budget in tough economic times to help address the issue.
He also ensures early advertising of posts and is proud of the council’s "grow our own" policy of vying to retain newly trained teachers for the region’s benefit.
"We have a close link with teacher training colleges and try to attract as many students as they will give us, to stay in Highland," he said.
A December 1 meeting of the "Northern Alliance" of Highland and its local authority counterparts – Moray, Aberdeen City and shire councils, Western Isles, Orkney, Shetland and Argyll & Bute – will tackle the shortage head-on.
"We’re going to work on a recruitment strategy for the whole area," Mr Steven said. "Government are looking at innovative ways of fast tracking people to retrain as teachers and I think that’s quite exciting.
"I’m concerned. Head teachers will tell you that young folk need staff to deliver a good outcome, so I am concerned about certain subjects.
"I’m 58, a year away from retirement but I could probably work until I’m 90 as a supply maths teacher.
"There are spaces in Inverness. Once upon a time, places like Thurso or Skye might have been stuck (for staff). Now it’s everywhere in Highland. But it’s not solely a Highland issue.
"Right across Highland, but in Inverness particularly, we’ve got a number of people who are ‘permanent supply’ teachers who can cover for staff – but we haven’t got enough.
"The generic interviews have been a success but we still need more staff. The scale of the issue has worsened in the past two years and, with certain subjects, it applies to primary and secondary schools."
Asked if education standards had suffered as a result, Mr Steven said: "We’ve got issues to deal with, as every local authority has, but we’re above the national average and doing well. Our Higher results are better.
"You’ve got to dig down below that to see if there are issues. One issue we’ll be focusing on is in and around the gap between our most able and least able pupils and how we best resource support for these young folks."
Highland education chairman Alasdair Christie said: "At the start of this academic year, there were over 500 teacher vacancies across Scotland.
"We’re trying to be pro-active but, set against the backdrop of not enough teachers nationally and the difficulties of recruiting to isolated areas, we struggle to get teachers.
"The council needs to find a holistic solution that not only recruits a teacher but helps relocate their family. It’s trickier here than for councils, say, in the central belt."
He added: "We’re aware of these challenges and are looking at different ways of attracting and retaining staff in Highland."
His councillor colleague Graham MacKenzie, a former rector of both Alness and Dingwall academies, has no doubt why teachers from outwith the area should consider coming to the Highlands.
"We have some of the best schools in the country, with motivated children and supportive parents," he said.
The Scottish Government has acknowledged the issue but stressed that recruitment "is a matter for local authorities".
A spokesman said: "We’ve taken decisive action to help recruit and retain teachers through our ‘Teaching Makes People’ campaign.
"This year alone we’ve invested £88 million so every school can access the right number of teachers.
"We’ve worked with local authorities to increase teacher numbers – with an additional 253 this year – and have increased the funding and places for our universities to recruit trainee teachers."