Some 4,500 jobs are going begging in the great teacher famine, says the Government. Yet 15,000 teachers - most of them over 40 - are on the dole. Surely some mistake, says Wendy Wallace.
She is the embodiment of the kind of teacher who is supposedly in hot demand. Indeed, Annie Johnson could have been dreamed up by the Department for Education and Employment's public relations team to represent one of the "potential returners" they wish to encourage.
At 48 she is in the prime of life. She has a BEd honours degree, a certificate in education with distinction, and years of solid experience teaching in both primary and secondary schools. A prime candidate, you would think, to fill one of the hundreds of teaching posts allegedly going begging.
"When I hear the Government saying they're short of teachers, I feel like screaming," says Ms Johnson (not her real name), who is facing deeper disillusion each day in her year-long search for a permanent post.
Annie Johnson is just one of thousands of older teachers, some of them would-be returners, others newly-qualified people who have migrated from other sectors, who are encountering great difficulties in getting jobs, despite the much-vaunted shortages.
Maybe her "crime" is to have had a life beyond the classroom. "I have done other things," she says. These include living in South America, working for Oxfam, and having two children. "Some people frown on that," she says. "I think it enriches you."
She has been looking for a permanent job for a year while working on temporary contracts in south of England comprehensives. She recently taught English in a secondary school for two terms as a part-timer. "I didmy very best - volunteering for extra sessions, helping out with the drama production and organising theatre trips. I was really happy there and my kids did extremely well in their key stage 3 SATs."
Yet when the school advertised the post in this newspaper, they stated that NQTs were especially welcome to apply. "I went to the head of department and asked for a private conversation," says Ms Johnson. "He was very supportive but said his hands were completely tied. I could apply for the job but they had to cut the budget, and if an NQT came along, the head would definitely go for that person.
"I came home and burst into tears. Everyone was charming to my face but behind my back all they were interested in was money."
A newly-qualified teacher was duly appointed. "She's in my job, earning pound;9,000 less than me," says Ms Johnson.
The issue here might appear to be cost-cutting rather than ageism. But ageism seems to have a vigorous life of its own: consider the number of older but newly-qualified - read cheap - teachers failing to find jobs. Steve Jackson qualified to teach secondary science and design technology in 1995 after a career in industry. Like Annie Johnson he closely matches the profile of supposedly desirable candidates. Yet he has made more than 200 job applications - all unsuccessful. He is 48.
"It's too young to feel you've been thrown on the scrapheap, which is how most of us do feel," he says.
People who come in as mature entrants are, he says, given a false picture of the job prospects by universities. "I was persuaded that teaching was a good route to take. But it's quite clear there is blatant age discrimination going on.
"Initially I thought it was me - or the area I live in: East Yorkshire. Then I began to notice letters in The TES from people having similar problems."
Since founding the Association of Teachers Against Ageism (ATAA) last September, he has been deluged with letters from teachers of 35-plus who are scraping a living through supply and benefits.
One of them was from Carole Hawkins. She has lived at the same cosy north London flat for 20 years. Not any more though. Since even supply work dried up for her last summer, she has been forced to put her flat on the market, and the sale is now going through. "The fridge and the freezer are bare and the cupboard too. You just wait and hope the phone rings and that's it," she says.
She qualified as a teacher in the mid-Eighties, inspired by the experience of giving voluntary help in her son's primary school. With a particular interest in children with special needs, she has worked in London primary schools and with war-traumatised children in Kuwait. Since returning from the Gulf in 1995 she has not been able to find a permanent job.
She believes a range of factors conspires against her at interview. "For a start, in a lot of cases I'm more experienced than the head, and may have better qualifications. Then there's the governing body, which tends to consist mainly of men. They seem to go for the younger women. On top of that, there's the question of the budget."
Unemployment and money worries have driven her to despair. "Now I don't feel as if I even want to try. Sometimes I'd just like to die. It would solve so many problems."
Many people have contacted The TES to express bewilderment at the Alice-in-Wonderland-type gap between the Government's drive to recruit more teachers of a range of ages and backgrounds, and the situation on the ground. Employment Service figures confirm that while the Government laments a shortage of 4,500 teachers, 15,000 are currently claiming jobseekers' allowance. Of those out of work for six months or more, over two-thirds are 40 and over.
Headteachers will admit in certain circumstances to preferring young teachers. Research by Alan Smithers, professor of education at the Uni-versity of Liverpool, found that heads favoured newly-qualified young teachers who had up-to-date subject knowledge and few commitments in their personal lives. Anecdotal evidence abounds of heads looking for malleable young teachers they can mould in the style they want to establish in their own school.
"They want someone who is bright, young, unattached and free to work all hours," says Annie Johnson. "There's enormous emphasis placed on out-of-school activities. That's fair enough - it's what I want for my own young children. But there's no support in terms of childcare facilities for teachers with families who want to get involved."
Recently qualified teacher Jonathan Beharrell, 49, is not the most flexible candidate for a new-broom head. With a civil engineering background, he went into higher education for the first time in 1991 and emerged with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and a PGCE, qualified to teach religious education.
"I did not envisage humiliation for me and my family as the end result of seven years of applied self-discipline," he says.
He did quickly get a temporary job at a comprehensive near Liverpool, where, he says candidly: "There was a major crisis with a position vacated overnight in unfortunate circumstances. They didn't even interview me, they were so desperate."
He drove 104 miles each day to get to the job and never worked less than a 60-hour week. But he wasn't invited to apply for the post on a permanent basis.
He is a committed Christian, and his almost evangelical approach to teaching has not always endeared him to colleagues. "I'm a bit of an individualist. I'm used to running my own business and operating independently. There is cynicism in the profession, but I refuse to be affected by it. I find I rub people up the wrong way because I'm an enthusiast. But I love teaching. All I want to feel is useful."
While many schools use the coded message "NQTs welcome" when advertising, Brighton College, a private school, advertised in The TES for a head of drama, "ideal age 25-35" and a deputy head aged "28-40". Head-teacher Dr Anthony Seldon ("45 going on 60", he says) pleads not guilty to ageism. "As a manager you are trying to get a blend of ages in your common room. Frankly, most heads would do it without stating it. I can see that it was tactless but I'm not remotely ageist."
The Government's new code of practice on age discrimination - effective from May - advises employers on how to eliminate ageism, and states specifically that employers should "not use age limits or age ranges in job adverts". But age charities under the umbrella of the Equal Rights on Age Coalition regret the absence of any accompanying sanctions for those who don't observe the code. "Overall, we feel it's doubtful whether it will make any real difference to the employment of older people," says chairman Don Steele.
Dilly McDermott, convener for the Return to Teaching course at Goldsmith's College, University of London, is adamant that there is teaching life after 40. She says: "People do face discrimination but we do a lot of work helping students look at the issues and present themselves in terms of what they have to offer that younger applicants don't."
One graduate of the Goldsmith's course recently landed a permanent job at the age of 58. Older teachers have to do what most have had plenty of practice at - keep on keeping on.
The Association of Teachers Against Ageism can be contacted co Steve Jackson,chairman, 5 The Villas, Great Hatfield, East Yorkshire HU11 4UT