For mothers returning to teaching, the biggest hurdle is rediscovering their confidence at work. Adi Bloom reports on the help at hand
In the world of education, notorious for its near-daily barrage of Green Papers, White Papers, government initiatives and consultations on consultations, 16 years is a long time. This was the discovery that Fiona Wright made when she decided to resume her career as a secondary school teacher after taking time off to raise her four children.
Ms Wright had given up work in 1986 when her eldest daughter was born.
Sixteen years later, considering a return to the classroom, she realised there were few similarities between the job she had left and the one she was now hoping to find.
"All the administration is done on computer - I hadn't had to do that before," says the 44-year-old modern languages teacher. "And I was worried about kids' behaviour. People say parents have got a lot worse as well. And then there's the syllabus. What are SATs? What is the national curriculum?"
Luckily for her she lives in Hertfordshire, an authority which has built a reputation for helping returners to the classroom. It runs a weekly returners' club at its teacher centre at Wheathampstead which is well attended. But Ms Wright went on a 10-week course organised with Cambridge University designed to address returners' concerns. Combining lecture and seminar sessions with active classroom experience, the course provides people with an opportunity to brush up on the day-to-day routines and rebuild their confidence.
"We were all in the same boat, so you could ask any questions you wanted - because no one knew the answers. It really helps," says Ms Wright, who works at Nicholas Breakspear RC comprehensive in Saint Albans.
About 1,800 former teachers rejoin the profession every year. Some, like Ms Wright, return after an absence of more than a decade; others have been away from the chalkface for just one or two years.
In 2000, returners made up 2 per cent of the new teaching workforce.
Provisional data now suggests that this has risen to 3` per cent, a figure which the Teacher Training Agency hopes to maintain each year. To meet this goal, the agency has sponsored returners' courses around the country, often run in conjunction with local authorities. The aim is to encourage prospective returnees by helping them to overcome any initial fears about the changes that have taken place during their absence.
As an extra incentive, a training bursary of pound;1,500 is available for teachers who enrol on such a course, whether full-time, part-time or distance-learning. A childcare allowance of up to pound;1,800 will also be made available.
For many students, the childcare allowance is especially welcome- the majority of returners are mothers who have left teaching to raise a family.
Others have taught abroad for an extended period, either in impoverished Third World schools or in select expat institutions that are equally far removed from the world of British education.
Returners also include those who have tried alternative career paths - either within or outside the education sector - before succumbing once more to the lure of the classroom. In times of economic difficulty in particular, many former teachers are drawn to the security that the profession offers.
"Among each cohort, there are those who leave for good reasons, and there are those who gave up teaching because they were no good," says Paul Chidgey, who runs a returners' course for Manchester City Council.
"Ten years down the line, they've forgotten how difficult it was, and how ineffectual they were. But you can't always tell who they are because most people have fears."
This fear, says Mr Chidgey, often springs from the unknown. By offering an introduction to the many new government strategies and innovations introduced in recent years, he aims to provide returners with enough confidence to allow them to continue their research independently. And many of the fears expressed by course participants can often be dispelled by introducing them back into the classroom.
"With many of the horror stories portrayed in the press, many people have specific fears about behaviour management," says Mr Chidgey. "But the vast majority of schools are good, the vast majority of teachers are effective, and the vast majority of pupils are responsive."
Many returners discover that feelings of insecurity are inevitable after an extended absence. When Alison Browne, a 32-year-old primary teacher, took up a post at a Hertfordshire school this autumn, she found that five years away from the job had taken its toll.
"I was nervous facing the class," she says. "I'd been raising my own daughter, but it had been a long time since I'd had to deal with 30 children all at once. It's a confidence thing."
But now she believes that her interim experiences actually enhanced her ability in the classroom.
"I used to spend endless hours doing stuff for school. But your priorities change. You get a bit more realistic about what you can do.
"Now I have my daughter, I find it easier to think of a whole mass of children as other people's babies. It hasn't changed how I treat them, but it's changed how I relate to their parents. I can empathise with them."
And Paul Chidgey agrees. Extra-curricular experience, he says, often means that returners can be a good investment for a school - a teacher who has raised a family or taken a world trip can be easier to retain.
"People are often better for having been away and acquired life skills - they're less likely to panic, better able to pace themselves," he says.
"Fundamentally, if you've been an effective teacher in your first career, you're likely to be effective during your second."