Education Quandary

I am thinking about becoming a teacher, but am not sure whether I would want to teach primary or secondary pupils, or what subject, because my degree is in philosophy. I also don't have GCSE maths. Would that stop me from getting in?
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Hilary's advice

Have you given this idea any serious thought? Because, to be honest, your queries sound pretty wishy-washy. It's easy to pluck teaching out of the air as an idea when nothing else presents itself, or when a would-be career in the theatre or best-seller-writing isn't getting off the starting blocks - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the country's best heads fell into teaching by accident, and many charismatic classroom teachers work their magic because of the actor manqué in them.

But modern teaching isn't something to dabble with if you don't know what it's all about. It can be highly competitive to get a training place, and when you do, you're likely to find that today's classrooms are demanding places. You'll not only have to deal with sassy, challenging kids, but also with the constraints of the national curriculum, the piles of forms to be filled in, and regular inspections. The results you achieve with your children, whether in the tests for 11-year-olds or with your A2 candidates will be closely scrutinised, and there will be no room to hide if you don't come up with the goods. (On the other hand, there is also more support and training, and more career options than previously. And the pay is better than it was.)

So be aware that what you are thinking of getting into is not the easy bolt-hole that it once was for undecided young graduates, but a competitive, 21st-century profession, aiming at high standards and rigorous responsibilities.

You also need to know that infant teaching is a completely different thing from junior-school teaching, and that secondary school is a different thing again. If you teach the under-11s, you'll have to be a jack-of-all-trades, teaching everything from PE to science. You'll get to know your class well, and be responsible for their overall development and welfare. At secondary level, you'll teach one or two subjects to lots of different classes, and your interactions with pupils will have a different flavour from relationships with younger children.

To find out where you think you might fit on the spectrum, contact your local education authority and ask to visit some schools. Even better, volunteer to help out in some. Not only will this help you clarify your thoughts, it will also look good on your application form - evidence of a real commitment to children and their education always helps.

Philosophy is not a national curriculum subject, but it may be that you can use it as a basis for training in another subject, such as English or citizenship. There are also short courses available, for people who want to brush up other subject areas.

To talk about this, and about how to get your maths up to scratch you should phone the Teacher Information Line - 0845 6000 991 - and chew things over with an adviser. He or she will also be able to tell you about the different routes into teaching. Then decide where you might like to train, and ring those institutions to ask their admissions officers for more details.

Teachers have to have GCSE maths or its equivalent, but it may be that you can get your maths up to speed as you train. However, that will all depend on your educational background, the attitude of the individual college or university, and what opportunities are available to you locally.

Readers' advice

I was advised by Professor Harold Rosen, father of the poet Michael, that my relative lack of qualification in literature would turn out to be entirely irrelevant in practice to a career in secondary English teaching, and he turned out to be right. I have just retired from an enormously rewarding 27 years teaching English and learning support. Such literature as I've needed has been learnt on the job, and at Royal Shakespeare Company summer schools; much more important, though, has been a simple love of stories and books. Philosophy, on the other hand, equips one to see through the eyes of others, which is enormously useful in both English and learning support, and also in pastoral work.

There is always the possibility of teaching philosophy at A-level, and very occasionally at younger ages; and the subject should be highly relevant to teaching history and religious education.

Lack of a GCSE in maths might be a more serious difficulty. If your correspondent can afford it, he or she would be well advised to devote a year to getting that qualification.
Tim Macy, Suffolk

My wife is a primary-school teacher and currently acting head. I have a BEd in maths but choose to teach a vocational course, in farriery, at a college of technology because my students want to learn and I can go off and work for myself almost as and when I wish. As far as teaching in the state sector, if you have not yet started, go and find some other form of employment.

In teaching, your hours will be dictated to you, but the work and preparation that you will be expected to do will take up far more time. You will have no autonomy and will not be treated as a professional. What you do will be dictated to you by politicians for ideological reasons.
Nicholas Sumner, Hereford

PGCE courses are highly oversubscribed. The Teacher Training Agency states that teaching is the number one choice for people changing careers; some primary courses in fact now have five applications for every place. You will need experience in schools with the age range you want to teach for application to either phase. My advice would be to contact the Teacher Training Agency Open Schools Programme to arrange a visit to a primary and a secondary school to see which you prefer.

You could look into teaching religious education or citizenship at secondary level, and history or English could also be a possibility.
Alison Baker, London N15

Next week's quandary

I have a daughter aged one-and-three-quarters who was born at the end of June. We have just started to look at nursery places, and some of the other parents we have met while we have been doing this have told us that her birthday will be a big disadvantage to her in school. I don't understand. Why is this? And is there anything we can do?


Last month's Quandary advised readers about how to deal with a new requirement that membership of the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) would be indicated on the front of the Ucas university application form. Ucas and NAGTY have now decided not to use this tick-box question for 2006 university entry, and are advising applicants to include details of their academy membership and activities in their personal statements, and in the space provided for recording details of any attendance at summer schools.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 18 April, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser