It's official: you're an experienced teacher. You've mastered the art of classroom management and your schemes of work are foolproof. You've been given responsibility in your department, or headed up a year group. Or you've worked on the senior management team. But think carefully before you accept that promotion. Are you ready to scale the career ladder or would you benefit from a change of direction?
An increasing number of teachers are working as freelance teacher trainers or education consultants. For some, it is a chance to pursue academic interests and enhance their skills; for others, it's an opportunity to explore more flexible ways of working.
Will Thomas recently made the switch from head of science to freelance training consultant and performance coach. "I'd reached the stage in my career where I had to make some big decisions," says the 34-year-old, who taught at South Bromsgrove high school, near Birmingham. "I'd been a head of department for four years and I was heading towards deputy headship. I kept asking myself if that was what I really wanted to do. I felt I needed to explore some other dimensions first."
He'd gained experience training teachers in accelerated learning at his own school and for Worcestershire LEA during 2001 - this covers practical approaches to enhancing teaching and learning including aspects of brain function and intelligence theory - and was keen to take this further. "I didn't want to lose contact with the classroom," he says, "but I wanted to work with adults for a while, spreading what I'd learned about accelerated learning and communicating my passion for it." Fortunately, he had already led training courses for Alite - a company based in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and run by Alistair Smith, one of the UK's leading trainers in modern learning methods.
Nowadays, there is no such thing as a typical week for Mr Thomas. His workload includes science consultancy, training courses on accelerated learning, and life coaching. The job also involves plenty of travelling; he's worked with clients as far afield as South Africa. He didn't find the move easy. "I had to do a lot of soul-searching," he says. "Working for yourself is not a soft option. Leaving a well-paid job with pension benefits is scary. I also had to save; you can't make a move like this without some money behind you."
He'd also done his research. In the year before he became self-employed, Mr Thomas was networking and making contacts in the education world. Marketing himself was crucial. "When you're starting up alone, you need a clear vision of what people want, and what you want to offer. Then you decide how you're going to put yourself in the arena, which means talking to a lot of people."
With his plan in place, the next step was to find an accountant who could explain taxes and insurances. He set up as a sole trader, opening a business bank account and registering with the Inland Revenue. He also contacted the Chamber of Commerce, which offered courses in book-keeping and income tax.
Will Thomas has no doubt he made the right decision. "What I love about working this way is its unpredictability. Working freelance has allowed me to open my eyes and see what's going on across the educational spectrum."
He's also benefiting from the flexibility - for the first time in 10 years he was able to enjoy a skiing holiday in mid-January.
Seven years ago, Frances Child was deputy head at Turves Green girls'
school, a large secondary in Birmingham. She now works as a freelance trainer and education consultant but, unlike Mr Thomas career change, hers was accidental. "As a deputy head, I was working flat out and was often at school until 9pm," explains the 39-year-old. "After the birth of my first child in 1996, I realised I couldn't keep up that level of commitment, but I did want to work.
"Then the phone began to ring - headteachers at first - wanting to know if I'd do some mentoring, help implement new policies or train new heads of department. It grew from there and soon I was being offered training and consultancy work from several sources."
This year, she is working on a project to amalgamate two schools, and is co-ordinating in-house teacher training in a consortium of 20 schools in Birmingham. Next year could be completely different. "It's a great career, particularly for someone with a young family," she says. "I can work from home - part-time if it suits me - and it's flexible. It's great to be in control of your own workload."
But, like any job, it has its shortcomings. "I'm not keen on the paperwork," says Ms Child. Mr Thomas agrees. "Much of my time is taken up with administration and accounts," he says. "Then there is the financial uncertainty; waiting for payments to come in can be unsettling."
If all this sounds off-putting, help is available to get you started.
According to Steve Lovett, business counsellor and training officer at Business Link - the national advice service for sole traders and small companies - the key lies in planning. "If you research your market well," he says, "there's no reason why you shouldn't be successful. Identify a target market, find out how much they are willing to pay for your services, and work out if that will meet your needs." Then work out a business plan.
Most high street banks produce packs on starting a small business and some include templates for plans. Business Link offers free one-to-one counselling and courses in insurance, marketing and book-keeping.
But there's no substitute for discipline and self-motivation. "When you're working for yourself, it's easy to become distracted, especially if you're working from home," says Mr Lovett. "You have to seek work all the time, and almost everyone you speak to is a potential client, so you're constantly out to impress. You can't ring in sick, or take time off for a family crisis; it's your livelihood."
If you do make the break, it doesn't have to signal the end of your teaching career. "I'd never rule out a return to the classroom," says Mr Thomas. "It's rewarding, and I miss working with youngsters. That said, the future is still uncertain - I'm happy with what I'm doing now, so I couldn't really say where I'll be in five years. At the moment, it suits my lifestyle."
And, if nothing else, spending a few years as a freelance trainer or consultant could refresh and revive you for a return to teaching later. But Brian Clegg, head of salaries and pensions at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, urges caution. The pensions green paper published at the end of last year proposes that the pension age for teachers and other public servants should rise from 60 to 65, which could affect your entitlement.
"Taking some time out of the classroom can be great for teachers," he says.
"But if you leave to work as a freelance and return, you could find yourself back as a new member of the Teachers' Pension scheme. It's too early to say as the issue is still in consultation, but it's fair to say it's uncertain ground. My advice would be, don't take a break yet as now is not the time for teachers to take risks on the pension front."
But Will Thomas is determined to continue. "I'm enjoying the freedom to organise my life and being able to say no to the things I don't feel happy about," he says. "My schedule is punishing and the pace is high; presenting whole-school Inset days for up to 150 teachers is more challenging than people might think. It tests you to the limits, but the buzz at the end of the day is amazing. It's so motivating."
Websites: www.royalbankscot.co.uksmall_ business; www.smallbusiness.co.uk; www.businesslink.org; www.startups.co.uk
The Lloyds TSB Small Business Guide 2003 by Sara Williams
Will Thomas: 01684 578754; email: email@example.com