SINGAPORE - It has just become harder for graduates and mid-career professionals to land jobs as teachers in schools, even if they have done a stint of relief teaching.

The Education Ministry has begun to scale down hiring, after an aggressive eight-year recruitment drive since 2004 helped it build a 33,000-strong teaching force.

At its peak, in 2009, it recruited 3,000 teachers. In the years following, the number was between 2,000 and 3,000 a year.

But last year, the figure fell to 1,400. And this year, the ministry said it has taken on just 1,100 teachers so far.

Most of those it hires now are graduates who go on to take up the postgraduate diploma in education, as they are more sure of their career choices after university.

Explaining the reduced hiring, the ministry told The Sunday Times it had “significantly grown” the teaching force in recent years.

“Going forward, our focus will be on replacing teachers who have left the service and recruiting more teachers in specific subject areas,” said a spokesman.

In 2006, when there were 28,000 teachers, the ministry took steps to improve salaries and career prospects. Of the 33,000 teachers today, 15,800 are in primary schools, 14,600 are at the secondary level and the rest at junior colleges and Millennia Institute, which offers a three-year programme leading to the A levels.

Around 85 per cent of teachers are graduates. At the primary school level, seven in 10 teachers have a degree.

Another move that boosted recruitment was improving pay and promotion prospects for mid-career professionals around seven years ago. That led to the mid-career teachers growing from 15 per cent of the teaching force in 2002 to nearly 25 per cent last year.

With more teachers, schools have been able to shrink class size at Primary 1 and 2 to around 30 pupils, and offer more extras such as the Learning Support Programme for children who need help in some subjects. It also means teachers have more time and space to develop themselves professionally.

But with the ministry no longer facing a shortfall, more of those hoping to become teachers are being turned away.

Two recent graduates who failed to land a position as teachers said they were surprised because they had the right teaching subjects and some experience. Both declined to be named because they are determined to apply again next year.

“I have always wanted to be a teacher and when I went to university I picked subjects like English language. And during my term breaks I did relief teaching. So, I am really disappointed,” said one of them, a 22-year-old graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The other, a 23-year-old NUS science graduate, failed to land a place despite being granted an interview. She hopes the ministry would consider hiring suitable candidates even if it has exceeded the number planned for.

“If someone has the makings of a good teacher, I feel she should be hired anyway. Better to have a few more teachers than less,” she said.