Not-so-old heads on young shoulders

The fast-track teaching programme is helping the best to move up, writes Karen Higginbottom

Ever considered teaching as a career? Frightened off by the prospect of poor wages and sluggish career progression? Liz Robinson is a graduate who dispels those misconceptions. She is the 30-year-old head teacher at Surrey Square Junior School in Southwark, one of the most deprived boroughs in London. One of the reasons for Liz's rapid ascent through the teaching ranks is due to her participation in the Government's fast-track teaching programme, introduced in 2002 to accelerate the career development of graduates in teaching.

Liz was a newly qualified teacher when she applied for the fast-track scheme. During this time, she worked her way up to the post of deputy head at Charles Dickens School in London in only three years. Her appointment as head teacher last January was greeted with much media fanfare. "It was a challenge because the media made a big song and dance about my appointment, so it was a lot to live up to. For the first few months, I felt conscious of my age but as soon as people get to know you within the school community that goes."

Liz has made an impact on the school, with Ofsted recently granting it an "outstanding" for leadership. One of the benefits of the fast-track programme was its training in leadership skills and its useful contacts in education, says Liz. "We had visiting lecturers such as David Bell and John West-Burnham," she adds. "I've even met Tony Blair through fast-track."

The job is demanding: working from 7.30am to 6:30pm, Liz will sort out cover, conduct a morning briefing, observe lessons and look at the performance management of all staff. Despite her responsibilities, she remains as enthusiastic as ever about teaching. "Working with children and seeing them progress is fantastic," she says. Liz earns a competitive salary of more than £55,000 a year and feels privileged to have this degree of responsibility at such a young age.

For Ben England, the 30-year-old head of music at the Grange School in Bristol, teaching offers so much more job satisfaction than his experience in a number of different careers. "I became disillusioned with staring at a computer screen all day, says Ben. "My last job as a web designer compared very unfavourably with my wife's career as a doctor. When I looked at my day-to-day existence, I felt like my life was disappearing and I wanted to work with people." Ben left behind a comfortable salary when he embarked on the fast-track programme in September 2003, which at that time included a post-graduate certificate of education (PGCE).

He credits the fast-track programme with giving him the skills to push through initiatives, such as the creation of a rock orchestra. "To come in as head of music in your first post is quite scary," says Ben. "I came to a school where music was on the wane and and had no real road map. Having a fast-track mentor who you can talk things through was really helpful, so I was able to do things."

He has occasionally been the recipient of comments about his age but he claims they are mostly light-hearted remarks. "I haven't had anyone call me a 'young whippersnapper'," he says. "I've needed to be very tactful and I'm very conscious of the fact that there are people who have been at the school for a decade doing things a certain way."

Too bright for teaching? That was the advice given to Claire Oaten, who is now a 30-year-old deputy head at Carleton Green Community Primary School in Lancashire. After achieving five A-levels, her teachers told her she was too "academic" to pursue a career in teaching. "They discouraged me from doing primary school teaching," she says.

She went on to Lancaster University to do a PhD in economics but a bout of glandular fever forced her to drop out of the course. During this time, she re-evaluated what she wanted to do with her life and decided to become a primary school teacher. She applied to do a PGCE at St Martin's School in Lancaster, where she came top of her year in the teaching practice course. She entered the fast-track programme in January 2004. "I went on a national conference where I could hear speakers on a range of areas in education and could network with fast-trackers," she says.

She became deputy head at her current school at the age of 29. "The challenging aspect of the post is that you're very aware of working with the head teacher as management, but I'm still teaching four days a week," she says.

Claire hasn't had any derogatory comments from staff about her age. "I'm one of the youngest members of staff in school," she says. "Everybody has been very positive." She recently passed her national qualification for headship and is looking for a head teacher role. "I don't want to take the first one that is available," she says. "I want a school that is right for me."

The Fast-Track Teaching programme is aimed at newly qualified teachers.

There is no age limit. For further information, visit www.fasttrackteaching.co.uk

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