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Tales of the expected on recruitment hotline;Teacher training

IT'S muggy and the air conditioning has broken down. A warm blast greets visitors entering the Teacher Training Agency's Chelmsford call centre, writes Nicolas Barnard.

The operators - "consultants" as we must call them - seem cool enough. The satisfying hum of 12 one-sided conversations fills the air.

This is where calls to the agency's recruitment hotline end up: a bright, anonymous office run by call-centre firm EWA in a corrugated-roofed building among dozens of others on a small, mazy industrial estate in the Essex town.

Everyone, from the Carlisle GCSE pupil calling with her mum about the best A-levels for teaching to the Kent 50-year-old pondering a return to the classroom, comes through to one of the dozen phones.

And there are plenty of callers - more than a quarter of a million since EWA won the agency's contract in August 1995.

They're coming faster, too. Last year saw an 111 per cent rise, and account director Mandy Norris hopes to break more records this summer, as the agency's TV campaign continues. Last year's adverts - Tony Blair et al reminding us that no one forgets a good teacher - prompted a surge from 7,000 calls a month to 17,000.

Those expecting massed ranks of cubicles or screaming signs flashing the number of waiting calls will be disappointed. It's quite sober. There are no daily targets. Everyone is given the time they need - on average five minutes but up to 20 for detailed queries.

The calls are sober too. Tales of bizarre enquiries prove few. Surely there must have been a few odd ones out of 250,000? Mandy's brow furrows. "One said he had tattoos and wanted to know if he could still be a teacher," she offers.

Money is a big concern. Some worry about fees (waived on postgraduate certificate in education courses), others about a lack of financial support (unaware of loans). Nine out of 10 people eligible for the pound;5,000 maths and science golden handshakes don't know about them, Mandy reckons. Detailed queries about funding are directed to councils.

Some worry about their age - one thought he was too old at 32 - and others about their lack of a degree. Others need roundly disabusing.

"We get people asking why they need a degree when they only want to teach primary," says consultant Amanda Gamble. Amanda's got a Stephen Dorffe screensaver, but she doesn't get to gaze at the actor's image much now the TV ads have started.

"There are always things to do - I'm doing callback at the moment." (EWA rings back callers in the shortage subjects after three months to see how they've got on.) The team collects huge swathes of detailed information for the agency, including breakdowns by gender, ethnicity, region, subject, qualifications, background and length of call.

Everything is meticulously logged, so if people ring again, their details can be instantly recalled. One woman rang back after three and a half years.

"She still had the publication we'd sent her," says Mandy. "It hadn't been the right time for her then, but she called to say 'I'm ready now'."

The Teaching Information Line is on 01245 454454

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