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If student debt is weighing you down, you could be rid of it sooner than you thought. But before you get too excited, Sara Bubb has some words of caution

How much do you owe the Student Loan Company? A friend of mine borrowed pound;6,500 during her first degree and pound;2,800 in her PGCE year, resulting in a debt of pound;9,300. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be free of that? Well, the dream is a reality with the repayment of teacher loans (RTL) scheme. Or at least it is for some; the phrase "read the small print" was never more apt.

You're eligible only if you qualified after February 1, 2002, but the scheme does apply to all courses - not just the PGCE. It's open to those working in England and Wales in maintained schools, non-maintained special schools, city technology colleges, city colleges for the technology of the arts and city academies. In this respect, the RTL is much fairer than the golden hello, which is limited to those with PGCEs and excludes teachers in CTCs and city academies. There are even deals for people in further education colleges. But you're out of luck if you work in an independent school.

In addition, some subjects are more equal than others. The RTL is only for those who teach maths, science, modern foreign languages, English (including drama), Welsh, design and technology, or ICT for at least half of their teaching time in a normal week. So hard luck to those of you who teach geography, history, RE, PE, music or art. First, no golden hello; now, no loans repaid. Pretty demotivating stuff.

The cruellest trick is that it appears to be open for primary teachers, but isn't. They are only eligible if they teach the shortage subject to classes other than their own and do so for half the week. This is clearly unfair - primary schools aren't organised like that.

To be eligible for the RTL you have to start teaching within seven months of gaining qualified teacher status. For most people that will mean February, but check the date on your QTS certificate from the Department for Education and Skills. This time limit will come as a blow to those who are planning to travel or teach abroad.

For those NQTs in areas not suffering from a teacher shortage, the limit is a particular headache, especially as they already have to contend with the four-term induction rule (you can't do short-term supply after you've worked four terms unless you've completed induction). To apply for the RTL, you have to have a contract of at least eight continuous weeks with a school or local authority - not a supply agency.

Finally, you must have an outstanding loan with the Student Loans Company. The scheme doesn't repay money borrowed from family, friends or banks. Nor does it have anything to offer people who got jobs while studying, scrimped and got by without taking out big loans.

The scheme will repay whatever amount is outstanding when you start work as a teacher in an eligible post. Don't make voluntary payments, or let generous relatives do so as a present, or you'll lose out.

Now the biggie. The debts aren't wiped out in one go. They'll be paid off over 10 years for full-time teachers with income-contingent loans, or around five to seven years for those with older mortgage-style loans. So, although you can move schools, you can't stop being a teacher of those shortage subjects in the state sector. If you do, you'll have to start making the loan repayments yourself. A perfect solution to the retention problem, huh?

To check whether you're eligible for the repayment of teacher loans scheme, call the Teaching Information Line on 0845 6000 991. Application forms are available from the Student Loans Company (0870 240 6298). If you think this scheme is unfair, write to your MP, or to Sara Bubb at The TES. Sara Bubb runs courses for NQTs and induction tutors at the Institute of Education, Lewisham, Lambeth, Greenwich and Jersey


Do you

* Work in a maintained school, a non-maintained special school, a city technology college, a city college for the technology of the arts or a city academy in England or Wales?

* Teach maths, science, modern foreign languages, English (including drama), Welsh, design and technology, or ICT for at least half of your timetable?

* Have a contract of at least eight continuous weeks with a school or LEA?

* Have an outstanding loan with the Student Loans Company?

Did you

* Gain qualified teacher status after February 1, 2002?

* Start teaching within seven months of gaining QTS?

If you answered yes to all these questions, then apply to have your loans repaid!

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