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London letdown;Personal Finance

Many young teachers see the capital as a city of opportunity, but all too often their dreams turn sour. Mary McArdle tells her own tale

I arrived in London in September 1996, eager to put my eight years' experience to use. I wanted to widen my horizons, having taught religion in Northern Ireland, where Christianity is taught to the exclusion of other faiths. Now I understand the calling of St Patrick when he heard the voice of the Irish calling him back. I am disillusioned with the London teaching world, and long to return home.

I planned to join a teacher-supply agency. Having read reports of teacher shortages I believed I would quickly get a job. But after being offered not one day's work, I contacted a second agency.

After a one-month wait, during which I worked a few 12-hour shifts packing CDs, and cleaned flats, I managed to get a couple of weeks' work. The agency paid me pound;60 a day after tax, although I later learned it was charging the school pound;117 for my services.

When the agency found me a longer spell of work in another school I felt far more secure, believing I might be given a chance to prove my worth. I had been applying for permanent positions but my lack of experience in London schools, coupled with the number of years I had been teaching, worked against me. I began to see that teaching is one of the few professions in which experience is a disadvantage, as it makes you expensive.

For two months I worked hard and the school began to recognise my abilities and effort. But from my pound;300 weekly wage, I had to find pound;130 for rent and pound;34.50 for travel. I also had to pay for food and washing, and try to cope with a backlog of bills.

The school principal was sympathetic and told me he would offer me a private contract. I thought this was the breakthrough I had been waiting for, but it proved less simple.

The agency demanded pound;3,000 to release me to the school, and told me any school that offered a contract within six months of my introduction would have to pay the same. I felt trapped and unemployable, and was beginning to drown in a sea of debt.

In an attempt to remain positive I put together a strong CV and sent it to several schools. Thankfully, one responded and offered me a short contract. Meanwhile, I continued to apply for permanent positions.

But my hopes faded as I attended a string of interviews only to see younger, less experienced teachers getting the jobs. What about my track record? My references? My qualifications (I have a BEd Hons degree) and experience?

The next blow came when I applied for two posts and was left feeling absolutely useless, because both schools decided they had received too few applications to appoint anyone.

It is 19 months since I arrived in England and I still have not managed to gain employment in a profession that claims to be reeling from a shortage of staff. Next term holds few prospects, and summer unemployment will follow. I have signed up with another agency, but have had to return to cleaning flats to pay my rent. London, with its thousands of schools, certainly extends no hand of welcome to me.

Mary McArdle is a pseudonym. The author is still seeking work in London

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