Russians hired to ease UK's teaching crisis

Highly qualified, they earn huge sums compared to pay back home. But there is the culture shock ...
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The Independent Online

The Russians are coming, to reduce the shortage of maths and science teachers in UK secondary schools.

For years many of Britain's state schools have relied on Australian, South African, New Zealand and American teachers to fill vacancies.

However, despite the worldwide trawl and a budget crisis that has seen thousands of teaching posts axed, schools are still having to turn to unlikely sources to fill maths and science teaching posts this term.

Figures show the number of maths teaching recruits is lower than six years ago - despite the offer of £4,000 "golden hellos" to trainees.

As a result, one firm of education consultants has lined up 50 Russian teachers in subjects where there are shortages. Six have come for the start of the new term, to teach maths and science. Two began work in England earlier this year. The rest will be interviewed by the firm later this term.

Jane Mercer, the founder of MSM, the education recruitment firm that has developed links with educationists in Russia, is planning a further visit to Moscow this autumn to assess possible new recruits.

She said she stumbled on the solution when her firm received an email from a Moscow company offering maths teachers who were ready to come and work in the UK.

"We soon realised this was an untapped source of teachers," she said. "Those who have come over here already have full-time jobs in schools and are planning to relocate their families to the UKsoon after they arrive ... If they don't want to remain here permanently, they say they are prepared for a four- or five-year stay."

The lure of the UK is obvious for Russian teachers, who can earn as little as £150 a month in their home country - even if they take on extra evening work to supplement their school income. "Many people over here think of Russians as severe, but they have a dry sense of humour - and all the ones we have recruited speak perfect English," Ms Mercer said. "We conduct interviews with them in English at as quick a pace as possible. If we're completely losing them, then they're not going to survive in an English classroom."

Past interviews held by the firm in Moscow have seen potential recruits arriving from all over the Soviet Union. "We had one teacher who travelled four days and nights to come all the way from the Siberia," she said. "Unfortunately, her temperament wasn't quite right for the UK and so we didn't recruit her.

"However, behaviour management in a Moscow school is on a par with London - so teachers are ready to cope when they come over here."

Most of the recruits are from the younger generation of teachers, as qualifications obtained before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 are generally not recognised. Many of them are trained in a number of subjects - such as combining maths with science - instead of just one as in the UK.

"We do give them induction training," said Ms Mercer, "but they seem very able to adapt to the UK. Schools that have employed them rate them as some of the highest-calibre teachers in their subject that they have seen."

An analysis of teacher recruitment figures carried out last month by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Anderson from Liverpool University's Centre for Education and Employment Research revealed that, despite a rise in applicants for maths places in the past two years, there were still 320 fewer trainees on teacher training courses than six years ago.

This year's A-level result showed a drop in the number of candidates opting for science subjects, which headteachers said was partly due to staffing shortages in sixth-forms.

From the Urals to Lewisham: it's a comprehensive change

Igor Zharkov is typical of the new breed of Russian teacher ready to solve the staffing crisis in Britain's secondary schools. Aged 29, he qualified as a maths, science and English teacher from his university in Russia. Hence he is able to teach two shortage subjects in the UK, and has excellent English to boot.

Mr Zharkov, who is taking maths and science classes at Crofton school, Lewisham, in south London, hails from Ufa, a town in the Ural mountains. He taught for six years before deciding to move to the UK. He has also taught in Moscow, which he says better prepared him for taking on a job in a London comprehensive.

"There is quite a cultural change," he said. "For instance, in Russia, you would be working just alongside teachers from your own country. Here it is a multi-cultural school with teachers from a wide range of countries - Jamaica, America, Australia. It was rather difficult for the first few weeks, but the staff were very supportive. I started in January and now the school has extended my contract until the end of term - Christmas."

Mr Zharkov said schools in Moscow had a stricter approach to discipline than in the UK, but added: "I had lots of support from the head of department and colleagues and there are rich resources to help you produce high quality lessons." He said he believed that Russian teachers had a greater educational background in science and maths than their UK counterparts.

Mr Zharkov's wife has already moved to the UK, and he wants to extend his contract and stay longer.

One criticism often made by overseas teachers is that they do not get enough training in the national curriculum or in the British education system. However, Mr Zharkov said that he was given an "absolutely fantastic" induction programme. "You know, teachers from overseas have a different reality about rules and regulations in English schools," he said. "Sometimes they do not know what to expect and what is expected of them." But he said he had been given practical tips on how to deal with everyday school life in the UK.

He also said he liked the way many of his colleagues had come up to him at the end of the first day and asked him: "How did you survive?"

The answer, he said, was "very well" and that he wanted more of it.