Give me England and a job for life

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
I could really do with a careers teacher, someone to sit me down in a hard plastic chair, blast me with coffee breath, and mix metaphors about roads less travelled and new leaves. After a nice chat, a few photocopied pie charts and a plastic wallet to put them in, I know I would feel much better.

My problem is quite straightforward. Like many teachers who are knocking 30, I'm having an existential crisis. Do I stay in the classroom, start accumulating management points, or get a job with one of those fancy agencies? To make my decision even harder - and here the careers teacher would smile sympathetically - I am a citizen of two countries, Britain and Canada. Not only must I choose what to do, but where to do it too. It's time to think about settling down.

On the face of it, Canada seems the obvious country in which to lose my hair and further my career. Despite the popularity of men's sandals and obnoxious pick-up trucks, it is big, beautiful and much more relaxed than the super-dense UK. Here in Ontario, teachers have mighty unions, one of the richest pension plans in North America, and a job that's free of government-imposed targets, exam boards and Ofsted-style inspections. The money is good, the summers are long, and Charles Clarke doesn't live here.

But in many ways, Canada is a tough place for ambitious teachers, a function of the country's vastness and the small population. For example, if I had my eye on a head of department's position within my admittedly small board (LEA), I'd only have five high schools to consider, just two of those within 50 miles of my house. Plus the jammy conditions we enjoy mean that staff turnover is low. At my preferred school, the head of English is 42 years old and happy. By the time she vacates her position in 13 years' time, I'll be sick of waiting - and up against an awful lot of competition.

I could move boards, but in doing so would lose my seniority and the increased job security that comes with it. I would also have to move house. Unlike, say, a Leeds resident who could easily travel to a new job in Sheffield or Bradford, the Torontonian who finds a post in the closest major city is looking at Ottawa - a 300-mile drive away.

Ontario does have a shortage of principals and vice-principals. Yet when it comes to headteaching, this part of the New World isn't the best place to do it. Principals can't even choose their teachers, who are often pool-hired by boards then slotted into positions by the central human resources office. Indeed, it is commonly accepted that so-called school leaders are more like middle managers: the link between the policy-making boards and the teachers in their schools.

Principals here are pool-hired, too. Those who want to run a high school often have a long wait, and are shunted from elementary school to elementary school in the meantime. Even if they are lucky and get to lead their preferred institution, they can expect to be moved on after five years.

Perhaps, then, I should move back to England (here the careers teacher frowns and scratches her chin). But do I want to deal with those silly government initiatives and wages that mean most people my age still live with their mums? Other things would annoy me, too: traffic congestion, queues in shops and the damp. Yet there are sufficient job vacancies each week to empty a small Canadian city.

And if I want to run an English department, I won't have to wait for someone to retire.

There are probably five high schools within three miles of my (mum's) house and vacancies at two of them. Should I need to upgrade my qualifications to land the job, there are universities all over the place.

And if I want to become a headteacher a few years hence, I probably can: most people don't want to run schools any more because the job is so onerous. Apparently, if I'm game for the challenge, I won't face much competition in many parts of the country.

Indeed, people are burning out and quitting all over the UK, leaving vacancies to be mopped up by us opportunity-starved New Worlders. It's the sorry state of England's educational system that makes it ideal for a career.

Nicholas Woolley is a secondary school teacher in Toronto

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