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Age concern

Are mature entrants a solution to the teacher recruitment crisis? Or are they just far too expensive for cash-strapped schools? Elizabeth Holmes reports.

Mmature entrants are welcome new members of the profession - officially, anyway, as the Government wants them, their skills and experience. Yet evidence suggests it does take longer for the mature NQT (any age from late twenties upward) to get a job. They usually train locally for practical reasons (perhaps family responsibilities) and seek work locally too. Not being able to offer unfettered mobility can be potentially restricting.

But is ageism a factor too? Some schools do positively discriminate in favour of the transferable skills and experiences that mature NQTs bring, but they are rare. For many schools, they are simply regarded as "too expensive".

Being fully trained, carrying valuable experience from careers outside teaching and willing to take up a post with immediate effect is not enough for schools that are strapped for cash and finding themselves with no choice but to take the cheapest (and not necessarily the best) option available.

This can lead to immense confusion for mature NQTs in areas where teacher shortages are not a pressing issue. They've heard the message that their country needs them; they've taken the significant step of retraining - perhaps sacrificing a substantial income in the process - and then they're rejected when they apply for a job.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some mature NQTs are told at interview that they are too expensive, compared to their younger counterparts. One told me that an interview panel said there was "absolutely nothing wrong" with her application ("so please don't think that it is your skills or experience that is the problem") but that her age alone prevented her from getting the job. This may be an isolated case - but if it happens to you, contact your union.

Bob Stonehouse of the Association of Teachers Against Ageism has come across similar incidents. "We don't want jobs simply because of our age, but we want to know that age will not be used against us. If there is a teacher shortage then those in charge of recruitment within schools are simply exacerbating the problem by ignoring the presence of mature NQTs. All we want is a level playing field."

But Stonhehouse, a late entrant to teaching who set up the association when he realised there was a link between age and unemployment, believes it is more than a money issue - that it is, as he says, "something that runs far deeper in our society. I know of many mature NQTs who have offered to take the lowest salary just to get a job but are still rejected over the younger applicants. What does this say about our attitude towards those in their thirties, forties and fifties?" This has been reflected in the experiences of some mature NQTs questioned by Michael Quintrell and Meg Maguire of King's College London for their paper, Older and wiser, or just the end of the line?: The experiences of mature trainee teachers. They found: "Marginalisation or discrimination are frequently silenced by other more 'comfortable' explanations. It is a lot easier to 'blame' age discrimination on salary costs rather than face the reality of ageism in education." Mature entrants are certainly being accepted on to initial teacher training courses. And there is no doubt that new flexible routes into the profession, such as the graduate teacher programme, school-centred initial teacher training and customised courses, will support mature entrants, but many still seem to feel that they should be told honestly about their value to the profession.

Mary Doherty of the Teacher Training Agency believes that this is now happening. "There is a move to match experience, personal attributes, knowledge and understanding to the needs of the school in question and there is no doubt that the applicatin, excitement, experience and relevance that mature NQTs bring to their schools is invaluable to the pupils and staff." The TTA has now begun gathering data on mature entrants' training, the length of time it takes to gain employment and subsequent exit from the profession - with the aim of identifying the barriers, hurdles and unnecessary obstacles blocking their paths.

Steve McCormack, 43, was a correspondent for the BBC before he began his PGCE at St Mary's College, Twickenham, to become a secondary maths teacher. Despite working for the BBC for nearly 20 years around the world, three years ago he decided to prepare for a change of career. "I had achieved a lot in journalism, and my enthusiasm had begun to wane. I think I had ceased to get as much out of it as I used to; perhaps I had peaked.

"At the same time, I began to feel vocationally pulled towards contributing towards society as a whole. I see education as the most important function of a society; the natural step for me was to become a teacher.

"Teaching practice has been extremely difficult at times; it's hard work and can be draining and dispiriting. But I know teaching is the job I want to do. I know teachers and I had been in schools as a journalist so I knew that it is a difficult job, but you can never know how difficult until you do the work yourself.

"The fact that I am a mature entrant with experience outside teaching has not been a negative issue for me. I haven't been remotely bothered by age. There are enough thirty- and forty-somethings on my course for me not to feel self-conscious. My mentor has been a great support. He is 10 years younger than me, but is an experienced teacher.

"Teaching is an immensely worthwhile profession. Good teachers, who are good in the classroom, are worth their weight in gold. The value they bring to society is immeasurable, but a lot of people just don't get this."

Angie Rutter, 39, began her working life as a paediatric nurse. When her son was four-years-old, she started to train as a teacher at what was then North London Polytechnic and she now works as a special needs teacher in a mainstream school.

"Going into teaching as your second or even third career is a definite choice. It is not something you would ever drift into. The financial difficulties are a major factor (although things are different now with the training salaries, golden hellos and opportunities to be paid as you train) as is the pressure it can place on your social life. Many people work and study but you do need to be dedicated to train 'late' in teaching.

"I have absolutely no regrets, even 11 years in. I get a real buzz out of my job and the magic is certainly still there. As soon as I began my teaching practice I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do.

"When I was training, the mature students certainly stuck together. We had all come from varied careers; it was fascinating being with them all on the course.

"To anyone thinking of a career change to teaching, I would say that you have to realise the commitment you are taking on. It is hard work but then anything that is worthwhile generally is. It gets easier once you have relaxed into it. It is a craft; you learn everything and then put it all into perspective.

"I want to learn all the time; teaching is certainly easier if you have the desire to keep learning. I started off in health and now my job allows for me to combine the health and teaching aspects of my careers. That's perfect for me.

"No one should think teaching is an easy option. The ability to be flexible and mobile is very important. You also need to have the self-confidence to know where you're going and why you want to be there.

"You need passion and compassion, energy and enthusiasm. These are often learned qualities that mature entrants can bring to the profession from the heart."

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