It's a startling fact that there are 300,000 out-of-service teachers in this country - those who have taught and left the profession before retirement. There are also 80,000 qualified teachers who have never been in service. You don't need a numeracy hour to see we have a leak from the profession of Niagara proportions.
Yet, increasing numbers battling against froth, foam and spray are swimming upstream to get back in the classroom where they can offer the profession valuable skills learned beyond school walls. Grateful for the knowledge and fresh perspectives, many schools are snapping them up.
Ron Austin, head of Beechwood School, Slough, which has suffered debilitating teacher shortages and which has even resorted to four-day weeks, says: "I would welcome them with open arms, and would even be happy to explore the possibilities of job sharing and part-time work." It's not an easy choice, though, to return to teaching. Even after few years away, it is daunting for even the most competent. And, after 10 or more years away, the profession is in many ways unrecognisable.
The national curriculum, literacy and numeracy strategies, tests and more tests, performance-related pay, an ever-increasing emphasis on record-keeping, increased workload, changes to GCSEs and A-levels, performance management, inspection changes - these are just some of the novelties returners have to embrace.
But Fiona Eldridge, head of teacher supply and recruitment at the Teacher Training Agency, says returners don't have to take the plunge in a vacuum. "We recognise the important contribution that returners make to schools. Each year we fund courses designed to equip them for a confident start back into the classroom. We also organise a national Keeping in Touch scheme, which provides those thinking of returning, with course details and other information."
This scheme is invaluable to would-be returners. By registering (see below), you receive details of local returner courses and tips on applying.
Your local recruitment strategy manager (RSM) will have all the information you need on local recruitment needs. He or she will also have details of returner courses in your area that enable you to get back into the profession, running at a speed that suits.
These low-cost, off-the-job courses can boost your confidence and can be tailored to your needs. Options include anything from full- or part-time conversion courses, to evening and weekend workshops on key generic issues, such as behaviour management and record-keeping.
Gaining experience in te classroom shortens the step back into the profession. If possible, offer voluntary support or, perhaps, take a teaching assistant post if you are not entirely sure you want to make a full return.
Take every opportunity to get into a variety of schools. Gather experience and shadow teachers, reminding yourself of the pleasures of teaching and noting any new drawbacks.
Susan Whitehead-Whiting, an English teacher and sixth-form deputy head in Wiltshire, knows from her experience of returning that it is essential to first check your motivation and then that this is understood by your referees. She says: "Interviewers will be keen to clarify why you left teaching and why you are seeking to return. Your first-hand experiences outside the classroom will be valued.
"Be sure to identify and highlight the transferable skills which you will have developed in the time."
This last point is particularly important when it comes to salary. While schools feeling the pinch of a competitive recruitment market may leap at the chance of employing a returner, your previous classroom experience should be rewarded and your experience outside the classroom should at least be considered for reward. This is something that returners should raise during interviews.
Whatever your reason for taking a break, you can usually put a positive spin on the way you spent your time. Never underestimate the value of your non-teaching experience. Use the supporting statement on the application form to link the main themes from this experience to the school's needs.
Seek current teachers' advice - the TTA has a list of advocates willing to talk in confidence to anyone thinking of entering or re-entering the profession - on how you can achieve this. OK, teaching's a tough career and, as far as most are concerned, it is getting tougher. But with a little groundwork, the route back needn't be an empty-handed leap of faith.
Elizabeth Holmes is the author of the Handbook for Newly Qualified Teachers, published by the Stationery Office.
* Details of the Keeping in Touch programme are available from the TTA on 01245 545 434, e-mail: email@example.com, or on the Net at www.teach-tta.gov.ukreturn. The centre will also give details of RSMs and teacher advocates in your area.
* Many websites such as the TES', www.tes.co.uk, the DfEE's, www.dfee.gov.uk, the Standards site, www.standards.dfee.gov.uk, the National Grid for Learning, www.ngfl.gov.uk, the site for the National Curriculum, www.nc.uk.net and www.schoolmanager.net offer up to date information in bite-sized chunks for those wanting to get up to speed on current education issues. www.tes.co.uk also hosts hundreds of job advertisements each week.