Why Sir and Miss should go home

Observations on schools

Look around your child's school this month, particularly if it is in London or the south-east, and you are likely to see several teachers from over-seas who may or may not be qualified to teach in the UK. Recruitment from former colonies has become the standard way for schools to fill the vacancies created by teacher shortages.

Other countries have their shortages, too. In Ontario, Canada's most populous province, 23 per cent of teachers employed in 1999 will have retired by 2005, rising to 40 per cent by 2010. The New York State United Teachers union predicted in November 2000 that 100,000 positions would become available by 2005. A survey in 2002 found that between 10 and 20 per cent of New Zealand's secondary schools received no applications for advertised positions.

So these countries also look abroad for teachers. The actual numbers of transient teachers are difficult to track: neither the Office for National Statistics nor the Department for Education and Skills keeps records of overseas teachers in the UK. However, the Ontario College of Teachers, which certifies all the province's teachers, reports that a third of the 10,000 applications received in 2002-2003 were from abroad, primarily from Britain, the United States and Australasia - all themselves popular destinations for Canadian teachers. As in so many other professions, the recruitment market for teachers is being globalised.

A colleague at my school in Ontario (yes, I jumped ship from Manchester five years ago) recently showed me a photograph of the English department at a school in south London where she spent the past year. There were eight women, all under 30. Two were agency-employed Canadians, one an agency-employed American. Another colleague, originally from Yorkshire, tells me her Canadian daughter is now teaching geography in Darlington. She's not qualified at all.

The implications for developing countries are particularly significant. Between 1990 and 2000, Timeplan, one of the many agencies making substantial profits from hiring teachers across the world, recruited 7,000 teachers from South Africa for British schools. Yet South Africa itself must, by 2010, find 70,000 more to replace those lost to Aids. In an interview with the BBC, a Jamaican senator said that agency poaching was putting his country's own education system at risk. Despite the lack of official figures, researchers for Voluntary Service Overseas conservatively estimate that at least 1,000 teachers a year come to Britain from developing countries.

The lure of life in a more prosperous country is obvious. So are the attractions of foreign museums, strange accents and funny money. But does anybody really benefit from the new global market in teachers? Developing countries tend to lose far more than they gain, with disastrous implications for their economic development. Schools get a transient workforce whose short-term visas prevent them from making a commitment - at my colleague's former school in south London, the three agency-employed English teachers have all returned home and one of the others is moving on, giving a departmental turnover of 50 per cent.

As for peripatetic teachers themselves, they tend to get the classes that nobody else wants to teach, in the schools where nobody else wants to work, and they get far less support than newly trained domestic teachers. By the time they have figured out how to deal with the children, it's time to fly home.

A teacher shortage should lead to more money and better conditions. But in teaching, supply and demand are inverted. Rather than addressing the root causes of the shortage - working conditions, a poor professional image and meddling, inconsistent policies - governments across the world are happy to let schools recruit from overseas, trusting that a spirit of adventure will outweigh the poor financial rewards. Internationally, the teaching profession is being divided and conquered. Only when the easy supply of adventurers dries up will governments be forced to address the real problems. For now, international workers' solidarity means staying at home.