You might need it. As Valentine's Day approaches, lonely singletons around Britain are hoping this will be the year when romance finally walks into their lives. Many will try to narrow the odds by joining a dating agency. Steven Hastings talks to the teachers who put their love lives in the hands of professional matchmakers.
What will Valentine's Day have in store for you this year? Flowers from a loved one? Chocolates from a secret sweetheart? Or a card from that runny-nosed admirer in Year 8, the one who always sits at the front? If it's another bleak February 14, don't despair: you could join the growing number of teachers using dating agencies to find true love.
Statistically, the most common way to meet a long-term partner is through work, but for many teachers this isn't possible. Jane Howey is part of an all-female staff at her primary school in York. "I joined a dating agency because there are no men in school," she says. "The chances of me finding romance at work are remote - unless I stand at the gate pouncing on male visitors."
Her problem is not unusual. There are twice as many female teachers as male in Britain, an imbalance that is even more pronounced in primary schools. This explains why dating agencies, which traditionally have more men than women on their books, find that trend is reversed for teachers.
Even where eligible potential partners available, love can be hampered by the school environment. "The staffroom isn't conducive to romance," complains Sarah Lawton from Rotherham. "People sit around marking or scanning The TES for jobs. It's just not flirty. There is someone I fancy at the moment, but if I made the extra effort to look nice it would attract comments from pupils and colleagues. There's no opportunity for private moments."
Many teachers join agencies because the idea of dating a colleague fills them with dread. The advantage of having someone who understands the stresses of the job is outweighed by the fear of gossiping pupils and tiresome evenings "talking shop". Perhaps this explains why there are specialist dating agencies for farmers and solicitors, but none for teachers.
Joanne Williams, an art teacher in South Yorkshire who joined Dateline two years ago, is in no doubt : "All men in the teaching profession are wimps. I prefer real men - though I suppose PE teachers are just about all right."
But one woman's wimp is another woman's caring, sensitive, modern man. That's the view of Mary Balfour, who runs Drawing Down the Moon, an "upmarket" introduction agency for professionals. Although teachers are not highly coveted for their earning power, she argues that they are desirable in other ways. "People look for qualities at work that can be translated into a relationship," she says. "Teachers are seen as understanding and good with children."
Kate Corbett of Club Sirius, an agency with more than 10,000 members, agrees that teachers should be an attractive date, at least to those outside the profession. "They tend to be well read and well travelled, both of which come high on most people's wish-lists."
Yet many teachers still feel insecure, reasoning that a reading diet of text books and policy documents and an annual expedition to Normandy with Year 10 does little to make them appealing. Joanna Hunt is a maths teacher in Bristol who joined an agency nine months ago. From the start she lied about her job, fearing the truth might scupper her chances of romance. "The image of teachers is boring, frumpy, dowdy, cloistered and narrow," she says. "I'm not like that. I'm funky and outgoing. I never ever tell people on a date that I'm a teacher. I say I work in public services and move the subject on." She's been going steady for two months now. Has her guilty secret come out ? "Oh yes, I've told him. And he still loves me."
Lyn Davies, president of the Association of British Introduction Agencies (ABIA), says anyone joining an agency is encouraged to be honest from the start. "People can be tempted to lie about their age, appearance, and sometimes their job, but we strongly discourage it. It isn't fair if someone turns up to a date with certain expectations only to find the other person has been bending the truth."
However, Pamela Russum, a PE teacher from the East Midlands in her late fifties who uses Dateline, claims lying about her age has helped her find more appropriate partners. "I'm very active. I love dancing. Most men of my age tend towards the pipe and slippers. Why not adjust your age or height slightly on the questionnaire? After all, in real life people don't apply rigid criteria - they just go on general impressions."
Lyn Davies agrees that there's more to dating than data. "However detailed the questionnaire or sophisticated the computer system, we can't guarantee that special chemistry. We introduce people with common ground, the rest is chance."
Patricia Macey, who works in an independent school in Lancashire, never lies about being a teacher. "But I do keep my fingers crossed when the conversation reaches that point," she says. "People can be intimidated by the fact that I'm an educated woman who knows my own mind. I'm head of department and men sometimes imagine I'll be bossy and domineering. I do think people can be wary of teachers."
Teachers are far from being the most reviled social group; that tag currently belongs to smokers. "We have real trouble getting non-smokers to meet smokers," admits Lyn Davies. "Fifteen years ago it wasn't an issue, now they're social lepers." Bad news for teachers who smoke.
But while people may lie about their occupation, physique or nicotine habit, there is increasing openness when it comes to admitting belonging to a dating agency. "Once you wouldn't have told your twin sister," says Lyn Davies. "I've gone to clients' weddings under an assumed name in case anyone linked my agency with the happy couple." The situation is very different now. "People discuss it at work - there's no stigma. Many clients come on a friend's recommendation."
Gordon Wilson, headmaster at a large secondary school in Cambridgeshire, got married last year. He met his wife, Yvonne, through the Drawing Down the Moon Agency. "Everyone at school knows how we found each other. I'm quite up front about it," he says.
Yvonne had been married before and the ceremony itself was a low-key affair. They threw a drinks party for the whole staff in the week before the wedding. "I don't think we upset anyone by not inviting them to the ceremony," says Gordon, "though it was made easier by the fact that I'd only been at the school just over a year. The staff can't have been too offended because they bought us a lovely present."
When he first met Yvonne, Gordon says he had no idea they would end up as man and wife. "We are both very independent, and Yvonne thought that if she married me she would lose that independence, become 'the head's wife' rather than a person in her own right. It's early days, Isuppose, but so far she has avoided getting dragged into school life, and pursues her own interests and activities."
Teachers using dating agencies stress that they are not loners or losers. Often they have a wide circle of friends but no romantic interest. Sometimes circumstances are to blame. Peter Flanaghan took his PGCE in Nottingham, but his first job was at a remote school in Cumbria. "I went from having a great nightlife, surrounded by friends, to feeling very lonely. I've always believed in being proactive, so joining Dateline enabled me to take control."
Bill Morris, a teacher in London, uses the gay introduction agency, Significant Others. "It's hard to meet partners through work," he says. "On a staff of 70 there might typically be half a dozen gay people, but of course they might be the wrong age or in relationships. I normally meet people in bars and discos, but I've got a bad back at the moment and my osteopath has banned me from the dance floor. The agency helps me stay a social animal."
The breakdown of long-standing relationships often prompts people to seek help in meeting new faces. Wendy Stevens joined Sirius after her divorce. "My marriage ended because my husband resented the hours I worked. We got back together after a separation, but that same week our school was listed for an Ofsted inspection. I was working until 11 o'clock most nights. He thought I was doing it on purpose, shutting him out. He left me again."
Her decision to join Sirius was not easy. "I was terrified, but it's been wonderful. If you're desperate to find love then you could feel the pressure, but if you set out to make friends and have a laugh, then you never know how things might develop. It costs me money, but it's an investment in myself."
Not everyone is so patient. Kate Downing has been with Dateline over a year and has yet to find someone. "I started off looking for Mr Right, but now I'd settle for Mr Nearly-Right, or even Mr Slightly-Unsuitable. Basically I'm desperate."
She's not the only one. "People shouldn't have unrealistic expectations," says Lyn Davies of ABIA. "There is no guarantee of finding love. Certain types have a better chance of success than others - older men and younger women are most in demand. Obviously, the longer you give it the more likely you are to succeed."
For Samantha Blossom, an art teacher from Scarborough, the waiting paid off. She had been about to let her Dateline membership lapse when she met Jim. "He's fantastic, wonderful. But I had to go through 80 geeks to find a man. I've met them all: ugly ones with terrible teeth, boring ones who talk about themselves, sex-starved Neanderthals, creeps who say they're going to the toilet and never come back. But now I've got the man of my dreams and I'm not letting him go."
The names of the teachers have been changed. The ABIA publishes a full list of its member agencies at www.abia.org.ukmembersClub Sirius: 0800 542 3000; www.clubsirius.com Drawing Down the Moon: 020 7937 6263; www.drawingdownthemoon.co.ukDateline International: 08700 766262;www.dateline.uk.comSignificant Others: 020 7499 5939
JOINING AN AGENCY: THE QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK.
How does the agency work?
There are three basic systems. The "list method" entitles you to receive details of other agency members. Then there's computer comparison in which your details are fed into a computer which produces a list of potential dates. Finally, there's the personal introduction, where you meet a matchmaker who decides on a suitable partner.
How much will it cost?
Prices vary enormously from around pound;100 for list-based agencies, through to several thousand pounds for the elite introduction services. Some memberships last a year, others for a certain number of introductions.
Will I meet people from my area?
If you live outside a large city it may be best to check that the agency has clients in your region. Long-distance love can be difficult. Many dating agencies are now regionally based.
Is the agency a member of the ABIA?
If so, it will have to conform to certain standards and adhere to the ABIA's strict code of practice.