It's now or never

11th December 2009 at 00:00
The reasons for the increasing numbers of career-change teachers in their thirties and forties are varied. But will they last the course - and are they what the profession needs?

Alasdair Maclean used to be a successful operations director for a manufacturing company, answerable only to the chief executive. But despite his position of influence and considerable salary, at 47 he gave it all up to become a maths teacher.

"I had been talking about it for a couple of years," says Mr Maclean, who has worked in the operations and supply chain for the past 25 years. "I wanted to give something back and thought it's now or never."

That kind of attitude has led to an incredible surge in the number of "career changers" - classified by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) as over-30s who have switched to teaching later in life.

Of the 26,859 inquiries the TDA has received from people interested in teaching since September, about half are from career changers (see box, overleaf). In the past, this was more like a third. The other two pools consist of university students and "career finders" - people in their twenties who are still searching for their niche job.

They are not just making informal inquiries about teaching either. There has also been a 31 per cent growth in students aged over 30 being accepted on to trainee courses in England since 200809. Luke Grahams, head of recruitment strategy at the TDA, says: "Schools want the best person, irrespective of background, but it's good to have a mix of people who may be able to bring with them a variety of unique skills and perspectives. It's important to have a workforce that reflects society in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability, age and experience."

Some newcomers will have been made redundant, turning to teaching for job security. The TDA's "City seminars", for employees in the financial sector who may need or want to reconsider their job options, attracted over 1,000 visitors earlier this year. Up to 400 companies have also signed up to the TDA's Transition to Teaching programme, which helps at-risk employees consider teaching one of the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Other new teachers, like David Fairclough, were not made redundant but saw dark clouds looming. He worked in financial sales for the Royal Bank of Scotland, but found the work monotonous and unsatisfying. "There were a lot of pay cuts and cuts to our bonus scheme. I'm not sure I'd have a job now if I hadn't taken the jump into teaching."

Having had a taste of teaching in three or four schools as a volunteer, he is now taking a science PGCE at the University of Leeds. "It's completely different from my last job, and it can be demanding learning all the different techniques, but I find it exhilarating."

People like Mr Fairclough have led to a booster year in terms of teacher recruitment. This year, the number of people joining teacher training courses exceeded government targets for the first time, even in maths and science. There are 2,897 trainee maths teachers this year, 8 per cent above the target. And 3,701 people signed up to science, beating the target by an impressive 9 per cent.

The TDA insists that more teachers will drive up quality, not least because schools will be able to choose from the very best candidates. But having spent years doing something completely different, are career- changing teachers really up to the job?

Mike Welsh, head of Goddard Park Community Primary School in Swindon, is not convinced. He fears that former private-sector workers will abandon teaching once the economy recovers. Mr Welsh was particularly concerned when Gordon Brown suggested earlier this year that talented professionals who are made redundant could be fast-tracked into teaching within six months. The Government's white paper proposals would also allow 200 outstanding recruits the chance to become headteachers within four years.

"Newcomers to the profession must serve their full apprenticeship," Mr Welsh says. "Training can't be a bolt-on. I've seen no convincing evidence to demonstrate that people who occupy a senior post in industry will necessarily have the skills to become teachers without the adequate apprenticeship time."

Even a year-long PGCE is too short and doesn't involve enough school-based experience, believes Mr Welsh. He would prefer new recruits to take advantage of the 12-month Graduate Teacher Programme, which allows students to train and earn on the job.

But the Prime Minister's fast-track proposal has proved appealing to some older career changers who want to accelerate the route into a new working life. Mr Maclean says he probably wouldn't have made the move into teaching if he hadn't seen an ad in the paper saying: "We can make you a teacher in six months."

The ad referred to the Accelerated Route to Qualified Teacher Status (ARQTS), a new pilot scheme run by London University's Institute of Education. Set up in response to the Government's proposals, the course was designed to recruit up to 40 skilled career changers looking to become chemistry, physics or maths teachers. However, only 15 places have been filled because of a lack of suitable candidates.

"Not many people could reach the required standard within six months," admits professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the IoE. "This is a very high status course for exceptional individuals."

Having started the course in September, Mr Maclean should become a fully fledged teacher by March. "The fast-track option was very attractive to me," he says. "It means I can get stuck in. My children have left home, more or less, and I wanted to give something back, either by working in a charity or a school."

He is currently employed by a secondary school in Bromley, southeast London, for which he receives pound;19,000 per annum. He spends one day a week at university and four days in the school. In January, he will get a couple of weeks' experience in a different school before qualifying two months later.

"I've always believed that you learn most when you're doing," says Mr Maclean, who had to take a "massive" pay cut to attend the course. "I don't assume that I'll finish learning within six months. I won't be an expert after this training, but I'll have the bare minimum standards that will hold me in good stead for learning more."

And it is a steep learning curve. As a head of operations, Mr Maclean could go into a new company and have a good feel for how things work within five or so weeks. "As a teacher, I feel like I've barely touched the surface," he says. "Nothing is familiar."

For example, he had never seen an interactive whiteboard before, let alone used one. Managing behaviour is also a challenge. But he has learnt a lot from his school-based mentors, plus young teachers whose technical knowledge and recent university education have been invaluable.

Dr Nicholas Eager, who is on the IoE's accelerated course as well, has had more teaching experience, but not in this country. The 42-year-old taught English as a foreign language for eight years, mostly in Asia.

Before that, he worked as a medical molecular biologist before turning his hand to medical sales and marketing. He has also worked as an oncologist specialising in breast cancer.

For him, too, the fast-track option appealed. "I'm impatient, and once I've turned my mind to something, I want to do it quickly," he says. "I like concentrating hard and achieving."

His previous teaching experience has held him in good stead for becoming a science teacher, he says, and he feels relatively undaunted about swapping foreign students for teenagers in east London. "I went to a comprehensive in east London myself, so it's not as if I'm from a more privileged background than them," Dr Eager says. "It's a challenge, but I'm enjoying it."

For someone deciding they are unhappy with their choice of career in their mid-30s or older, teaching is very often the second career of choice now. John Morgan, head of Conyers School in Stockton-on-Tees and this year's president of the Association of School and College Leaders, has spotted a marked trend towards more mature students.

"About 10 to 20 per cent of my staff are on their second career," says Mr Morgan. "They are not just teachers, they add another dimension and extra experience to the role."

In the late 1970s or early 80s, there was a misconception that everybody could teach, adds Mr Morgan, meaning 50-year-olds would move, too. It didn't make for particularly good teachers. Now he has noticed that the new breed of career changers show an admirable commitment to the job. "They respect the challenge," he says. "They are in it for all the right reasons."

Lingering concerns about the wave of people entering the profession led the TDA to commission a report on why. It found that more workers are looking for a job that would "make a difference", "inspire people" and have variety.

"No longer are people focused on having a job they can boast about, wearing a suit to work or having manager or director in their job title," states the September 2009 report, Added Values. "What this means for teaching is that we are likely to see growth in the portion of self- interested idealists currently belonging to (other) professions who are likely to reconsider their career holistically - balancing options and priorities."

But it is no easy choice. As well as the often significant cut in salary, it can be hard to start again at the bottom.

Janet Miller, 45, had been a chartered accountant for 21 years and has worked for herself for the past 15. But she had a "burning desire" to find a more satisfying career. She is now a newly qualified maths teacher at Stanley High Sports College in Merseyside.

"It took me quite a few years to persuade my family and friends it would be worth the financial hardship, and to make the necessary arrangements for my business," she says.

"My past self-employment has helped immensely with my planning, organisation and even IT skills, and my maturity seems to influence students' perceptions of me as an established teacher."

Others reach the conclusion that teaching is for them a lot earlier, but not without devoting years of training to something else.

Anna Fielding, 30, had worked as a lawyer for an international firm in Leeds for seven years before throwing it all in for a life in the classroom. She is currently completing a PGCE in history at the University of York.

"It was a very hard decision, particularly as you see your friends progressing through their careers, being promoted and earning more money," she says. "But I knew it was something that I really wanted to do, so I decided to put up with the short-term hardships."

A lot is made of the severe dip in salary that career changers have to endure. But Barry Day, principal of the new Nottingham Academy, say it's a myth that the business world always pays more than the public sector. If their past experience is relevant to them doing a good job, Mr Day is happy to put new teachers on scale point 6: a starting salary of more than pound;30,000. "It's money well spent. I've never been disappointed," he says.

Mr Day actively encourages applications from career changers - something that is clearly in evidence among his 400-strong staff.

"Young entrants will often take a gap year to go off travelling. Older candidates starting a new career are much less likely to disappear."

Their commitment and dedication is often rewarded with promotion at Nottingham Academy. David Craggs, 34, trained as a systems analyst before working in sales as a national account manager for a large organisation. But he left his home and comfortable job in Norwich to take a PGCE in ICT at Nottingham Trent University.

In his third year of teaching at Greenwood Dale School in Nottingham (one of three schools that now make up Nottingham Academy), he was promoted to second in command in the ICT department. One year later, he became head of department.

"I am ambitious, but it's because I want things done right," insists Mr Craggs. "When I was in retail sales I was dealing with consumers every day and I never let a problem sit until it had been dealt with successfully. Now if there is an issue with a pupil or a parent, I don't just let things lie. I'm in a position to do something about it directly. It's a `can do' and `will do' approach."

This tenacity is common among many career changers, observes Kate Aspin, senior lecturer in education at the University of Huddersfield. Adult learners come from all walks of life. "Many of ours were teaching assistants previously," she says. "We have sent them away to gain greater school experience or to develop other skills before coming on the course, and they do it."

Career changers have also taken a greater interest in Huddersfield's secondary courses, with inquiries into its maths PGCE coming from engineers, biochemists and PhD graduates.

"Career changers can be an asset with a wider skills base and an often better grasp of work and organising their time than 18-year-olds," Ms Aspin says. Some struggle with written aspects of the course or find it hard to cope with limited funds, although they are generally better at asking for help than their younger counterparts.

"Some career changers breeze through, juggling things with the most amazing aplomb," Ms Aspin adds. "We have had trainees with four children under seven do amazingly well and 18-year-olds with no responsibility struggle with the workload and commitment."

Ms Aspin is keen to stress that it is hard to generalise. All decisions are based on the individual, and excellence is not confined to any one age group. What's more important is that people go into teaching for the right reasons: often, out of a strong sense of vocation.

Career changers are likely to have sacrificed a great deal in order to retrain. They will have demonstrated an admirable degree of open- mindedness and commitment. Even without teaching experience, those attributes alone point to a promising career in the profession

A career choice for graduates

More finalists made applications for accountancy positions in the early months of the graduate recruitment season than any other career area, but overall the most popular destinations for the class of 2009 are teaching, media and marketing. This is the first time that teaching has been the top choice for university leavers.

The number of students applying to investment banks - the second most popular destination for new graduates in 2008 - has dropped by a third this year, and there has been less interest in other parts of the financial sector as well. Applications for jobs in property have also fallen sharply.

Expected starting salaries have dipped a little this year to an average of pound;22,300. Newly qualified teachers can expect to start on a minimum of pound;21,102 in England or Wales, and pound;26,000 in inner London. This is the first year that expectations have not increased since the survey was first conducted in 1995.

Source: The UK Graduate Careers Survey 2009

New teachers breakdown

Of the 26,859 inquiries recorded so far this year (since September):

  • 13,404 are from career changers (over 30s; 40 per cent are male)
  • 8,760 are from university students (early 20s; 30 per cent are male)
  • 4,687 are from career finders (mid to late 20s; 30 per cent are male)
    • Source: TDA.

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