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At the end of the line

Daniel Hickey reports on a helpline for stressed-out trainees.

Take an inner-city school, a rowdy class and a trainee teacher. Add a heavy workload and fragile confidence, then leave to ferment - and don't be too surprised if it bubbles over. Would-be teachers might be enticed by seductive TV advertisements, but they can easily quit when the workload become overwhelming.

Recognising this, a Samaritans-style phoneline, Teacherline for Trainees, has been giving confidential advice and counselling since September. The Teachers' Benevolent Fund and Teacher Training Agency launched the free, 24-hour, 365-days-a-year service for qualified teachers with the aim of reducing stress, absenteeism and drop-out rates. The service for trainees followed two months later - a need shown by TTA figures which revealed that a third of BEd and PGCE students who qualified to teach in secondary schools in 1998 were not in a post nine months later.

Teacherline is designed to help reduce the annual pound;18 million bill for supply teachers and recruitment drives to cover absences and replace those leaving the profession through ill health. It might be working - by the end of December, operators had received more than 3,500 calls.

Although independently provided by the counselling agency First Assist, Teacherline has been funded by a pound;250,000 government grant to cover its first six months, plus an extra pound;100,000 for the trainee bolt-on. It provides advice on a range of professional matters such as training, exams and placements, but also on personal issues including family and accommodation problems, and difficulties with colleagues or finances. Predictably, the most common issues raised by callers touch on teachers' workloads and their effect on social lives, conflict with colleagues and pupils, and Ofsted inspections.

The head of the Teacherline counselling team, Tony Lewis, believes young and inexperienced teachers are particularly susceptible to professional and personal strain. "They may be away from their home and family support network," he says. "They are very highly observed and don't have the same close relationship with a schol that permanent members of staff might have. As a result they can feel isolated."

Patrick Nash, chief executive of the TBF, hopes teachers will use the service "as a first resort rather than a last". Teaching unions have backed the scheme, although some dissenters, such as Professor James Tooley, head of the school of education at Newcastle University, believe it is no more than a "sticking plaster" applied to deep-rooted problems of over-work and high expectation.

Tony Lewis believes the service is particularly useful for trainees who might not otherwise ask for help. Typically, he says, trainees are anxious about school placements. "They may feel they are under-performing and suffer a loss of confidence, particularly because they feel they can't meet the high expectations of schools and training institutions."

With tough assessments, observation and the induction years looming, students may not go to their course tutor or placement supervisor "because they do not want to admit they can't manage in case they are seen to be failing".

Callers to the helpline do not have to give personal details, and conversations are neither recorded nor traceable. "Confidentiality, is a must," says Mr Lewis. "Callers have the control. They can phone whenever they like and put down the phone whenever they like."

Teachers and students who use the service sometimes have several conversations, often with the same counsellor, and are sometimes referred to their union or, where appropriate, other agencies such as Relate, which offers relationship counselling. The line is staffed mainly by ex-teachers, all with at least five years' experience in an advisory role.

Calls come in at all times, but their number is expected to increase throughout the year along with course and placement pressures. The TBA intends to release more detailed information about the service at the end of this month to give local authorities an idea of the scale of the problem.

Tony Lewis is convinced the service can be effective. He says:"Trainees often feel overwhelmed. Teacherline is meeting their need."

Teacherline: 08000 562561

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