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Very poor. Can't try any harder;Personal Finance

Elaine Williams talks to three people who are paying a high price for their decision to retrain as teachers

If I had my time again, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have signed up in 1990." Richard Shepherd en-rolled at Bradford and Ilkley Community College for a BEd after working in schools as a computer technician. He completed the course and, as a male qualified to teach in primary schools, he should have found a job easily.

But nearly four years after leaving college he is still without permanent employment. Having gone through two temporary contracts he is now confined to occasional supply work. With a wife and two small children as dependants, his financial situation is desperate. He says: "The strains on the family during my retraining were immense, but what we are going through now is hell."

Mr Shepherd, 33, who lives in Bradford, receives the Jobseekers' Allowance and housing benefit, but if he works just one day's supply he loses his benefit for that week and has to sign off and then sign on again. "I can earn about pound;100 a day on supply, which is more than my total benefit (just under pound;100 a week). But the problem with supply is that you don't get paid for two months. As soon as you work, however, benefit is stopped for that week.

"My income is extremely volatile, but luckily I have an extremely understanding bank manager. Still, we're all the time robbing Peter to pay Paul. My car's MOT has expired, and I don't know where I'm going to get the money from, but I need the car for supply work, because you can get a call at 8 o'clock in the morning to cover on that day."

Richard Shepherd's first temporary contract ended because the school was over budget and had to lose three teachers: "I was last in, and I was only temporary so I was first out," he says.

His second contract came to an end due to the school reorganising. "The schools were happy with me - I think I'm a good teacher - but they didn't have the money to keep me on.

Mr Shepherd, who is willing to move out of Bradford for work, has been for 10 or 11 interviews "up and down the country", but without success. The problem, he says, is that he's too expensive, being on point 6 of the teacher's pay scale due to his previous experience and the length of his contracts - two terms each, which added two points to his pay spine. "I started off on point 4, and I would willingly go down a point or two to get a job. If you take on temporary contracts as an NQT you can find yourself priced out of a permanent job."

In desperation he has turned to jobs outside teaching, but has found his teaching qualification a stumbling block: "Employers look at my qualifications and say, 'You're a trained teacher, why aren't you teaching?' So then they think there's something wrong with me."

Ann Jones, for 16 years a researcher with the former National Coal Board, retrained and qualified as a physics teacher seven years ago. She also is without permanent work, though willing to travel from her home in Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire.

Mrs Jones has held temporary contracts, and since Christmas has had two days a week supply work. But it's a precarious living. Her last temporary contract was in 1997 when she taught physics and balanced science. When the job became permanent the school advertised.

She says: "I was shortlisted alongside six NQTs, and on the day of the interviews the head announced that the school was pound;50,000 over budget. Needless to say, I didn't get the job. I am over 50 and several scale points ahead because of my age and experience. My experience doesn't seem to cut any ice in interviews."

Although mature entrants inevitably come up against ageism - some heads argue that older recruits may be less flexible than 22-year-olds - Mrs Jones believes it is the cost of employing her that is the main stumbling block. "Schools are just interested in how much I will cost," she says.

Now she is worried about how the retraining and lack of permanent work will affect her National Insurance contributions and pension. Like Mr Shepherd, she registered for the Jobseekers' Allowance, which is stopped as soon as she works a day's supply.

"We are dipping into savings just to pay bills," Mrs Jones says. "I thought there were teacher shortages, especially in science, but I wouldn't advise anybody to retrain as a teacher."

Peter Greasley (not his real name), a 51-year-old history and RE teacher from the South-west, would agree. A former building contractor, he gained a first-class honours degree in history and archeology, obtained a PGCE and is currently finishing a PhD. But, three years down the line and 127 job applications later, he still has no permanent teaching post.

He believes he also is too expensive, and schools are not even prepared to pay his travelling expenses to interviews. One school was honest enough to tell him so.

Moreover, because he had a gap in National Insurance contributions he could not claim the Jobseekers' Allowance for the first six months after leaving college. And, as his wife works as a nurse, he cannot claim income support, though she brings in less than pound;900 gross a month.

In addition, the large number of retired teachers who have moved to his area and who work cut-price for teaching agencies, has made getting supply work almost as difficult. As he says: "People who retrained as teachers are being left high and dry."

High price of a day's supply work * The effect of supply work on benefit support varies between regional offices of the Benefits Agency. Some regions stop benefit as soon as teachers work a day's supply, others aggregate the work over a period of one month. Teachers whose benefit is stopped for working a day's supply have recourse to a regional adjudication officer who can use "sensible discretion" to balance work and benefit over a period.

* People who retrain as teachers jeopardise their pension if they don't keep up their NI contributions. To get a full pension, you must average 50 stamps a year for all of your working life. "People should sign on with the Benefits Agency while retraining," says Brian Clegg of the National Association of School-masters Union of Women Teachers.

* All teachers can have their service made eligible for superannuation, though many claim they cannot afford to do so. Mr Clegg says: "Pension is worked out on a full-time-equivalent teacher's salary, so it's worth electing into."

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