'This is Telephone Teacher calling'

28th March 2003 at 00:00
On the Falkland Islands, pupils live in such remote places that the only way to reach them regularly is to ring them. Martin Whittaker reports on those teaching in the outposts of Empire

Six years ago Sue Evans was teaching a class of 34 in a Sheffield primary.

Today her life couldn't be more different - she has less stress, less paperwork and she gets to teach one-to-one. And several times a year she even gets to meet her pupils.

Sue is a "telephone teacher" in the Falklands. Her pupils live out in some of the more remote parts of the South Atlantic islands, so she has to deliver her lessons by phone.

"It's quite informal," she says. "I'm Sue - I'm not Miss Evans. And because I have been to their houses, I know the sort of jobs they might be doing during the day or what they have been up to. So you can build quite a good relationship.

"And most of them really enjoy it because you're ringing to talk to them - you're not ringing to talk to mum. It's their time. If something exciting has happened, they're usually quite keen to share it."

The idea of what passes for exciting in the Falklands might seem the cue for a joke to non-islanders. Many in the UK still associate the islands with Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri, penguins and peat fires, and the myth that its inhabitants have to huddle together for warmth in Antarctic winters.

But the Falklands climate is not dissimilar to that in the UK - it actually has more hours of sunshine than the South-east of England and less rainfall than the UK average, although it has a narrow temperature range of between 5C and 24C.

Those who go there to teach do tend to like the islands. "It's a very beautiful place," says Sue Evans, 33, who is now a resident. "It has clear, big blue skies and amazing beaches.

"I like the community spirit and the trust. I have a two-year-old girl and it's lovely to be able to trust people. I'm never worried or concerned about her."

The Falklands are an archipelago 300 miles off the South American mainland, with a population of nearly 3000. Apart from two months' occupation by invading Argentine troops in 1982, it has been a British overseas territory since 1833.

The main community, Port Stanley, has one primary school with 190 children and 30 pre-school children, and a secondary with around 160 pupils. There's no sixth form provision: A-level students come over to the UK, to Peter Symonds Sixth Form College in Winchester.

Primary-age children who live out in the Camp, the local name for countryside, are educated at home with visiting and telephone teachers, and there's a boarding hostel in Port Stanley for children aged 9-16.

And teachers seem very keen to work there, although vacancies don't come up very often. Last summer, secondary posts in Spanish, history, geography and English, plus vacancies for one primary and a couple of travelling teachers were snapped up. The posts, advertised in The TES, attracted some 130 replies.

Staff go there initially on a two-year contract. Some move on, while others have their contracts renewed for up to a maximum of five years.

"Some of them become so hooked on the islands, they then apply for residents' status," says the Falklands' director of education, Sylvia Cole.

"We have a number of teachers who live here permanently now."

Pay and conditions may also be a factor in attracting so many applications.

A newly qualified teacher could start on pound;20,136 per annum, while a teacher with three years' experience would earn pound;21,649. The first step on the incremental scale based on performance is pound;25,845 while those at the top of the pay scale can earn pound;31,927.

Typically, teaching contracts include return flights, allocated housing for which the teacher pays rent while there, and a gratuity on completion of contract of up to a quarter of basic salary. There's also a relocation grant of pound;2,000 for a single person, or pound;2,500 if you're married, plus pound;100 per child.

But how does the job differ from teaching in the UK? Sheelagh Farrow, who works in special needs in the Community School, the islands' secondary school, believes that apart from a gentler pace of life and smaller class sizes, there are few differences in the nature of the job.

"The main difficulty is that you are very isolated," she says. "In the UK, there's an established system whereby you can lay your hands on advice from all sorts of places - and you need to in my field.

"But here, for quite a lot of the time, you are on your own."

A big plus for her is the children's behaviour. "Our idea of behaviour problems and those in the UK are very different. These are an incredibly polite set of children.

"The place does feel a little olde worlde. It reminds me of my childhood, being able to play out in the streets. The safety aspect is so much better here."

The Falklands are one of 14 UK overseas territories which include Gibraltar, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and British Antarctic Territory.

And many of them seem favourite destinations for teachers who fancy a spell of working abroad in a far-flung remnant of Empire, although it's assumed that the British Antarctic Territory would not be top of the list.

Like the Falklands, Gibraltar has no teacher recruitment crisis. The place takes some 10 new staff a year, plus around 14 supply staff. And it has no shortage of applications - its schools can virtually pick and choose.

Pay and conditions are broadly the same as in the UK, but there is one perk: teachers get a non-contributory pension. British subjects employed by the government of Gibraltar, including teachers, are allowed to live there without a permit.

You might also hanker for the sea and sun of Bermuda. If so, join the club.

Bermuda, lying 600 miles east of the United States, may be one of the oldest and smallest UK overseas territories, but it's also one of the most crowded.

It has one of the world's highest populations per square mile, with a resident population of 62,400 people crammed into 21 square miles. Bermuda does recruit teachers from the UK and has no shortage of applicants. This month it was advertising 18 posts in many subjects.

Teachers' salaries in Bermuda range from $54,000 (pound;34,000) to more than $70,000, although the cost of living is high. "It is a bit expensive," said a government of Bermuda spokeswoman. "When people first move here it is a shock."

Next month: the perils of TEFL

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