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More than just a desk job

The Independent
Why graduates have caught the teaching bug


"Sat there on the first day of our teacher training, we were told we'd all have jobs by Easter – that was quite something," says James Randall, a recently qualified teacher of religious education. While job certainty isn't the only reason to opt for a career in teaching, it's an attractive incentive in the current climate. Nine out of 10 teachers were employed six months after completing their training, latest figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) show. Furthermore, around 85 per cent rated the quality of their training as very good. "It's probably the course I've enjoyed studying most because of the support and sheer variety," says Randall, who completed a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) at the University of Southampton after years of postgraduate study in philosophy.

Latest reports from Ofsted – the board of school inspectors – rate the current generation of teachers as the best ever. As a profession, teaching is pulling in graduates with ever-stronger degrees. Current statistics show that 60 per cent of primary school trainee teachers during the last academic year had a 2:1 or better, compared with 53 per cent seven years earlier. "But we're not complacent," says Graham Holley, chief executive of the TDA. "We continue to do as much as possible to persuade people through incentives, better pay and support and structured career progression."

When it works, teachers talk about job satisfaction second to none. One teacher at a primary school with pupils from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds says that the staff members are "a really close-knit team. We work well together and we can give the pupils that little bit extra of pastoral care that makes such a difference."

Teaching, the TDA points out, draws on your intellect and creativity. It offers a solid career that you can leave and return to with relative ease, a proper pay structure combined with good career prospects. There are often opportunities and financial incentives to take on management or extra-curricular responsibilities. Once qualified, you won't be left to your own devices: ongoing support and training are on hand to help you develop skills and confidence in dealing with pupils and to manage your workload. Though it's far from the minds of many recent graduates, the final salary pension is a huge bonus which you'll no doubt appreciate in later years.

But most of all, teachers almost unanimously pinpoint the "light-bulb moment" – the point at which you connect or engage with a pupil – as the most rewarding aspect of all. "Everyone has bad moments, but the good definitely outweigh the bad," says Randall. "When someone who hasn't spoken all year suddenly asks a question and you realise you've got them thinking, that's inspirational."

If you haven't chosen the undergraduate route into teaching, you have various options. As a postgraduate, you can complete a PGCE, usually a year-long course with theory backed up by hands-on experience. Many participants prefer this route as a more gradual introduction to classroom teaching. "I liked this route," says Randall. "You have time to get a sense of whether you can do it, and it gives you confidence."

Alternatively, you can opt for an employment-based route with the graduate teacher programme (GTP). This allows you to train on the job. Effectively, you're employed by a school as a salaried unqualified teacher while completing a training programme, which usually takes about a year.

Other schemes such as Teach First support and train top graduates to teach in challenging secondary schools in certain parts of the country. You can train to cover the whole primary or secondary age range, or focus on a particular age group. At primary level, you'll be trained to teach English, maths and science and can focus on one or more specialist subjects. Graduates with a science and maths background are currently in high demand – the Government aims to recruit up to 6,000 teachers in these disciplines and may offer a "golden hello" payment of up to £5,000 once qualified.

For Matt Fox, a former astrophysicist who now teaches science at St Birinus School in Didcot, switching to teaching took some soul searching. But he says he's not regretted it for a second. "It's great to work with students on a subject I'm so passionate about and to be part of the development of the next generation of scientists," he says.

Other subjects that you can cover include art, design and technology, geography, history, information and communications technology, modern languages, music and physical education – each is on the National Curriculum. At secondary level, additional subjects include business studies, classics, drama, economics and social sciences, along with vocational subjects such as health and social care, leisure and tourism, manufacturing and citizenship.

While you may have to fund a post-graduate qualification, there are several financial incentives and bursaries available. As well as the enticement for science and maths teachers, you might receive £2,500 if your PGCE is in modern languages, design and technology, information and communications technology, music or religious education. There are also tax-free bursaries of £225 a week for language graduates who wish to learn another language before beginning initial teacher training.

There's no doubt teachers' pay has had a bad press. But it has increased by nearly a fifth in real terms since 1997. Salaries in teaching can vary according to location and level of responsibility, and there are additional rewards for teachers who are considered excellent or who take on extra roles.

This school year, newly qualified teachers are on starting salaries of at least £20,133, and for London-based teachers, salaries start at £24,168. Good, experienced teachers can expect to earn £34,281 – for inner-London that's £41,004. Setting your sights higher, head teachers can earn around £90,000, depending on the size of the school.

www.teach.gov.uk/funding, www.teach.gov.uk/payandbenefits, www.teachfirst.org.uk

'I like the autonomy you have as a teacher'

James Randall, 31, is in his second year of teaching religious education and philosophy at Poole High School in Dorset. He did a PGCE at South-ampton University

"If you'd have asked me about teaching when I was 21, I'd have said, 'a classroom full of kids? No way'. I think you need a few years of life experience first. A friend suggested teaching as a natural fit for my skills, so I went into a secondary school and observed. I had a Damascene moment: this was exactly what I wanted to do.

The PGCE does prepare you gently. You are surrounded by excellent mentors. Your first experience in front of a class is quite short, but you get a real idea of what teaching is and how comfortable you are.

A lot of the pupils are looking for a male role model and I've laid down the ground rules for the class, such as respect for other's opinions.

You have to be confident. I have a pastoral role as head of house, and helping the children through to young adults in the sixth form is quite a challenge.

I like the autonomy you have as a teacher. You're independent and have great freedom – within the framework. There are busy periods, and it obviously helps to manage your time well. But if you're organised you can make the most of the splendid long holidays.

'The children are amazing to work with every day'

Kirstie Green, 39, is halfway through a flexible two-year PGCE at Winchester University, and currently works as a learning support assistant (LSA) at a primary school in Hampshire

"My degree was in business studies and before having children I worked as an event manager. I felt I had enough time ahead of me to start a second career.

Teaching is much more flexible when you have got a family. You don't have to go full time. I worked as an LSA in a primary school to decide whether teaching was for me and I loved it. You have to demonstrate your commitment to teaching.

The children are amazing to work with every day – they have great minds and just need someone to be shown how to use them.

Spreading the PGCE over two years has given me enough time to read and absorb all the information I need, and I can apply the theory in my work as an LSA. It brings the course to life.

Understanding how children learn is a very gradual process. I feel I have a natural rapport with them. I'm looking forward to having a class of pupils of my own. The staff here have been very supportive and give me lots of opportunities.

I chose primary education as I'm a good all-rounder rather than a specialist. If you have specialist knowledge, you're well-placed to go to secondary education."

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