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G'day boys and girls

We might be a bit short on sun, sea and surf, but Britain holds other attractions for teachers from the other side of the world: our schools, for example. Wendy Wallace reports on a stopgap solution to the staff shortage

Six-foot-three and with a ponytail hanging down his back, 29-year-old Paul Taylor conducts his Year 1 class literacy hour in an accent the children may recognise from Neighbours. "Tin, nine, ite," he counts. "If you've got five fingers up, give yourself five pits on the bick." There's something incongruous about this blond giant from Auckland, New Zealand, standing in his jeans and sweatshirt in a Victorian classroom in front of seated rows of small children.

Paul Taylor has been supply teaching in east London schools for the past two years. Before that, he taught Pacific Islanders - from Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands - in one of Auckland's most challenging schools. But that was no preparation for the London borough of Newham, he says. "I did a stint of Year 5 and I just couldn't handle it," he says. "I was doing no teaching; I was stopping boys from killing each other. Because I'm big, I got dumped in Year 5 and told to control them. I got sick and tired of being a highly paid babysitter."

For teachers in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, the great "OE" - overseas experience - is a powerful lure, the chance to see the world and further their careers at the same time. But for some young teachers at least, the adventure is not quite the one they anticipated. "I was lucky," says Paul Taylor. "I had taught in one of the roughest schools in Auckland. My partner came from a beautiful school, where the children would respond to just one word. She spent the first six months here in tears most nights because she just hadn't experienced it before."

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The large-scale importation of young, English-speaking teachers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa is providing a short-term solution to the teacher staffing crisis. Endorsed by the Government - which has relaxed entry requirements for foreign teachers - and by local authorities, schools throughout the United Kingdom have taken on temporary teachers from overseas. Teacher agency TimePlan has been on recruiting trips abroad for staff with half a dozen local authorities, and another 20 in the pipeline, says managing director Tish Seabourne.

But while the big picture - teachers filling vacancies - looks good, what is happening in the classrooms? After graduating as a teacher earlier this year, 26-year-old Paul Aranha, from Canada, was keen to travel. He rejected Japan - "I thought the culture shock might be too much" - and instead signed up in August with TimePlan for a job in historic Greenwich, south London. "I thought it would be a great base to travel from, and everybody said London was an incredible experience."

Five weeks after his arrival, at an inner-city primary in Deptford, one of the poorest parts of Greenwich, Paul is not waving but drowning. "I'm finding some of the children very immature and violent. They don't know how to play and lack social skills. Only a couple are at Year 3 level," he says. "We thought the system would be above ours, because the schools are so long-established. But that's just the private schools. I never imagined it was going to be this bad."

Trained as a secondary school geography teacher, Paul Aranha arrived in London at the end of August to find there had been a mix-up over his job - it no longer existed. Instead of the secondary post he had expected, five days later he found himself standing in front of his own Year 3 class. "I'm wiped out," he says, half a term later. "There are no textbooks and there's this big thing about not photocopying. The classroom, quite frankly, looks like shit. The walls are old, the paint is chipping, the floor tiles are old. There's no chalkboard or teacher's desk. Schools like that are not allowed to stay open in Toronto. The teachers here really care. But you're dealing with so much, it's one step forward, four steps back every day."

Many teachers report sink-or-swim experiences in the early days of their great overseas adventure. Homesickness, culture shock and the climate, expense and overcrowding of Britain are challenges enough. School can be the final straw. Nikki Whitehouse, 26, arrived in the UK from Auckland just over a year ago to teach in a north London primary. "The first school was difficult," she says. "I had kids running out of the room and going under the table. The deputy head spent a little time with me but certainly not enough. I was sick with stress for the whole eight weeks I was there. I wanted to go home. I only stayed because my friends were here."

Nikki Whitehouse is now happy in another school, in well-behaved Mill Hill, a residential suburb of north London. "I hate the cold, and the rain's depressing," she says. "Public transport is not ideal and shop assistants are horrendous. But I'm very happy. I don't want to go home. I've been to the Eastern bloc, western Europe, Tenerife, a little bit of England. I'm planning to go to the States."

Paul Taylor too has temporarily come to rest - at Nelson School in Newham, where, he says, he's enjoying teaching again. With experience in more than 100 London schools, he says it is support from senior management that makes or breaks the supply teacher's resolve to stay for more than a few days. "I go with the flow, and I've often got walked over because of it," he says. "I've been told to do 'busy' work, not to touch displays or exercise books. It's very patronising sometimes."

Nelson's headteacher, Tim Benson, forced to rely on the "sticking plaster" of foreign teachers to cover the "very large wound" of teacher shortages, is well aware of the need to provide support. "It's essential to induct teachers," he says. "You can't just push them through the door and say 'get on with it'."

Some schools do, though. Profitable to their agencies, useful to local authorities and potentially vital to individual schools, the foreign teachers should be supported by all three. But some feel they are supported only by each other. "We're at school all day and we come home and talk about school," says Paul Aranha, who lives with two other teachers. "On the weekends we end up doing grocery shopping and laundry. I would have gone nuts on my own."

Tish Seabourne of TimePlan denies that the agency fails to support its recruits. "We have an open-door policy and it's made absolutely clear to every teacher that if they have a problem we're on the end of the phone," she says. "The majority have a wonderful time living here and teaching here." Only 3 per cent of recruits return early, she says, usually because of events back home.

For those who stay, it's a mixed experience. They might be shocked by the poor behaviour, by primary children getting changed for PE in their classroom and the requirement to teach religious education, but they appreciate the lunch hour and - weirdly for British teachers - often comment that, converted into Canadian or New Zealand dollars, pay is high. They soon realise that, as Nikki Whitehouse puts it, "you don't have to go to the first school you see. If you knew that at home, it would make it that much easier. Agencies do a good job but they take far too much money off you. We work as hard as the rest of the staff but don't get sick pay or holiday pay, so you feel a little bit let down by it."

Tim Benson says English schools may be getting the pick of the crop from abroad - those teachers with "the drive, ambition, courage and confidence to cross the world". He praises their "enthusiasm, creativity and general good nature".

Sarah Harrhy, 23, from Brisbane, arrived in January this year and exemplifies those qualities. She radiates energy and enthusiasm, putting her Year 4 class at Nelson through a fast-paced numeracy session.

"What's a century? A hundred years? Or? Come on, I thought cricket was an English game." Sarah, who had visited the UK several times previously, is enjoying herself. "I love it here," she says. "I love the kids and they do make for interesting stories when I call home." But she finds the prescriptive atmosphere in British teaching difficult. "There's no room for me to put my own spin on things," she says. "And too few hours in the day to teach the things I'm meant to teach. When I go back to Australia I'll be able to teach on my ear." (That means, she kindly explains, it will be easy.) A LONG WAY FROM HOME

Suzanne Uren, 27, came to Birmingham from Goderich, Ontario, in May this year, with the Initial teacher agency. Jobs are hard to find for newly qualified teachers in Canada, she says, and her motive was career development. "I wanted to come over and gain some teaching experience."

Ms Uren is teaching English at Cardinal Newman school in Birmingham, currently in special measures. "It's tough," she says, "but I have had some really positive moments. Today my Year 10s wouldn't settle, then they did and we had half an hour where I was able to talk to them and teach them."

Fellow staff, she says, are "really friendly and welcoming. Even teachers who have been here a long time can struggle with behaviour, so everyone's in the same boat. It's not you that's the problem. They've told me the kids come from a tough background and their home life isn't 100 per cent."

Suzanne Uren has left behind her husband of four years, and a close family. "I'm feeling pretty good," she says, "although I feel the pull from back home." She is lodging with a fellow teacher in Yardley Wood. "I like Birmingham, even though I'm used to living in the country. It's quite a change."

Laurie MacDermott, 24, also came to London from Ontario. She saw an advertisement for teachers in London on the Internet, called the agency, and was interviewed on August 11 and on the plane on the 30th. "It was all very quick," she says. "I still sometimes can't believe I'm here."

Newly qualified and with teaching practice experience in elementary schools, Laurie MacDermott wanted to "try something new and have an adventure". She is living with other Canadian teachers in a house in south London, where the rent, she says, is comparable to downtown Toronto, "in the very fancy part".

At Haimo School in Greenwich, where Ms MacDermott was employed, asbestos was discovered in the heating system over the holidays. She has spent the first half of term accompanying her Year 6 class to a neighbouring school, where they are being temporarily accommodated and taught. "It's not exactly a good way to start," she says. "But it can't get any worse. At least I get to watch an experienced teacher teach before I get my own class."

The borough provided two days' literacy and two days' numeracy training when she and other new Canadian recruits arrived. But Laurie MacDermott and her compatriots are taken aback by the "regimented" requirements on teachers. "We do a lot of planning at home, but it isn't as strict as here," she says.

"People still feel a little bit thrown in. They're adjusting. We all have our moments of frustration because many of us are newly qualified, getting a class for the first time, in another country. It's kind of difficult."

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