UK recruiters exacerbate Jamaica’s education brain drain

Jamaican teacher Bertrand came to Britain 15 years ago to seek a better life for himself and his family. He’s amongst hundreds who come every year via recruiting agencies that are raiding the island nation of its teaching staff.

Though Jamaican teachers can earn five times what they make back home, it’s not easy. On an agency salary – typically less than that offered to directly-employed teachers – recruits struggle with the cost of living and sometimes must seek direct placements after three months, Bertrand tells Equal Times, asking not to give his full name.

“The difference in pay is not that great when you consider the cost of housing, especially in London,” he says, adding that housing for a family is a “pretty steep cut from income.”

And yet in the past year, nearly 500 of Jamaica’s best math and science teachers were recruited to fill some of the 50,000 teaching vacancies in the UK’s education system.

Short on cash and struggling to meet the wage demands of local teachers, Jamaica’s Ministry of Education is grappling with ways to stop the hemorrhage. Recruiters are not only taking the best; they employ the specialists that are the most difficult to replace.

With about a dozen of the island’s best schools losing most of their math and IT departments in 2015 alone, there is concern. As only about one-eighth of the 40,000 students preparing for final exams each year will choose the sciences, it is difficult to find replacements for fully qualified science, technology and maths teachers of the so-called STEM subjects.

“We are not attracting as many science and math teachers as we would have liked in the system. Those who meet matriculation requirements are simply not applying to the teaching profession,” communications director at Jamaica’s Ministry of Education, Byron Buckley, tells Equal Times.

In a report to the Jamaican Parliament on 2 February, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites pointed to “a deficit in the number of teachers qualified to teach mathematics in the public education system.”

Only about 20 per cent of those deployed are fully qualified, and the situation is similar in the areas of science and information technology, he said. Except for the sciences, literacy and languages, Jamaica has a surplus of teachers.

According to estimates from the education think tank Educate Jamaica, it will take monthly salaries of more than US$2000 after taxes to stem the exodus of specialist teachers.

The Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA), which represents most of the island’s teachers, has also proposed large salary increases and incentives. But International Monetary Fund (IMF) restrictions and the IMF’s proposal for a smaller public sector put the government between a rock and a hard place.

Even with teacher shortages, the Ministry’s strategy of combining incentives, scholarships and the deployment of coaches in failing schools produced a roughly 50 per cent increase in student pass rates for maths and science.

But there are no policies to prevent foreign recruitment, Buckley said. So while the government explores additional incentives to attract, train and retain specialists, the recruiters are free to enlist, encouraged by similar traditional values and education systems.

UK squeezed too

Britain must find some 160,000 additional teachers in the next three years to satisfy its growing needs, a combination of low recruitment numbers, increased retirements and a record number of resignations.

Teacher training applications are also down. In 2014, there were 21,000 fewer teachers in training over the previous year, even as student numbers rose.

At the same time, the recruitment of foreign teachers is putting the squeeze on British teachers. In 2015, the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT), Britain’s largest, charged that the growth of teaching agencies has reduced salaries and denied members’ access to pensions and professional development.

They launched a campaign to push for equal treatment for all teachers and to force disclosure of government’s payments to recruiting companies.

The frequent raids on Jamaica’s education system are a throwback to the 1960s, when many Jamaicans were recruited to fill vacancies in the British transportation system and National Health Service.

Jamaican teachers are targeted not only to fill vacancies, but also to provide role models for Britain’s Afro-Caribbean population. The US and other Caribbean countries have also targeted Jamaica. Most recently China, Dubai and even Botswana have come calling.

Geoff Brown, a former head teacher in the UK, is now a director of Hourglass Education. According to a Guardian newspaper report, he visited Jamaica in June and again in October 2015 to recruit a total of 64 teachers. According to reports, he has been recruiting on the island since the start of year.

With the employment of replacement British teachers at an all-time low, Brown said the best option is to recruit from places like Jamaica. And although there is ongoing recruitment from Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, Brown admitted that he has a preference for Jamaican teachers.

“In my experience, those from Australia and New Zealand want to come over for a year, travel around Europe and take a month off for Christmas to go home. You get a Jamaican, he or she is here for life,” he told the Guardian.

Even with signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) in which UK and others agree to register and submit their request through the Jamaican government’s online system, the recruitment advertising and fairs continue. And since the UK government has given its blessing, the recruiters are expected to be back soon.

“Our positive education outcomes are being undermined by the continued attrition from the system of the already scarce supply of qualified math teachers,” Thwaites told the Jamaican parliament.

Educate Jamaica has proposed “the other option”. In an article on its website the think tank said the government should consider recruiting “from Asian, South American and African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana to fill the vacancies.”

For expediency’s sake, perhaps there’s another teacher brain drain in the making.