Matt Fox is no ordinary science teacher. Although he now spends his days at St Birinus School in Didcot, Oxfordshire, introducing pupils to the joys of GCSE and A-level physics, his background lies in education of a far more complex nature. The 34-year-old used to be a research scientist in the field of astrophysics at Imperial College, London, and after eight years there – during which he discovered no less than 60 new galaxies – he was all set to become a fully fledged academic.
"I had to make a choice about whether I wanted to become a full-time lecturer at the university," he says. "I'd wanted to be an astrophysicist since I was a child, but as I'd already realised most of my ambitions in that area, I decided I needed a change. A lot of my colleagues found it bizarre, but I genuinely felt that I could make a bigger difference to science in the long term through teaching."
Fox only qualified as a teacher in 2004, after he left Imperial to complete his Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) at a school in Yorkshire. This was an on-the-job training scheme aimed mainly at older students. As he had already had a taste of teaching in his previous job, the GTP suited him better than the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) taken by most new graduates.
"I love teaching because of the immediate feedback you get from the kids," he says. "When they get excited and stay behind to ask questions, you instantly know that you've had a good day. Sometimes the amount of paperwork can get you down, but as long as you love what you do, the kids can't help being dragged along. The more time and effort you put into your teaching, the more you get out of it."
Although Fox is enthusiastic about his new career, figures released by the Department for Children, Schools and Families point to a worrying shortage of fresh science teachers. In the last academic year there were more than 6,200 vacant teaching posts in science and maths across the country: more than half of these were suitable for newly qualified teachers. According to John Connelly, head of recruitment at the Training and Development Agency for Schools, around 3,500 new science teachers need to enter the system every year to replace those who are retiring. But in the current buoyant economic climate, meeting this target is proving difficult.
"The skills that these people have make them some of the most employable people in the country," says Connelly. "There's a huge demand for them at the moment due to the rise of hi-tech industries, so we have to compete against employers from many other areas. Although the number of people going into teaching has increased enormously in the last few years, filling all of the job vacancies can still be challenging."
For this very reason, anyone who has ever considered a career in science teaching would be hard pressed to find a better time to qualify than right now. Not only will your services be in great demand as soon as you leave your course, there are now more ways to gain qualified teacher status than ever before: and if you enrol on an online or distance-learning programme, you can even stay in full-time employment while you study.
The newest of these flexible courses is iTeach, a joint initiative between Canterbury Christ Church University and Hibernia College in Ireland, which launched in April 2007. It was Britain's first fully online teacher training programme, and was aimed at people who want to teach physics, chemistry and maths. The course lasts 18 months, which includes a 14-week placement at a school somewhere in England, and can be taken by people in full-time work. It's proving popular, too: 100 students signed up last year, and this year a further 200 are expected to follow suit.
But iTeach is only one of a number of distance-learning options in teacher training: the Open University offers a flexible PGCE which is taught almost exclusively online, and can be completed in just over a year if taken full-time. Steve Hutchinson, director of the university's PGCE courses, argues that training to be a science teacher now could prove to be a wise move in the long term.
"There's an immense shortage of people with these kinds of skills," he says. "If you're a bright and charismatic chemist or physicist, the world's your oyster: most schools will jump at the chance to take you on. And for people equipped with these skills, moving into teaching is a really good thing to do, because they'll make very fast progress."
Advice on teacher training
Train to Teach, a recruitment event offering information on the various routes into the profession, will take place at the Science Museum in London on 14 and 15 March. Plenty of teachers will be hand to share their experiences. Visit www.tda.gov.uk to register.
Potential science teachers can enrol at any time for the PGCE courses offered by the Open University. Visit www.open.ac.uk.
There are still places left on the iTeach course, which begins in April. Visit www.iteach.ac.uk.
Anyone interested in training to become a science teacher can call the Teaching Information Line on 0845 6000 991; or visit www.teach.gov.uk.