Education: View From Here

There seems little doubt that schools prefer to recruit younger teachers
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The Independent Online
IS THERE really a crisis in teacher supply, or could it be that schools are guilty of ageism? Whenever shortages are reported, there is a flurry of letters from older teachers complaining that they cannot get jobs.

This happens even in science and maths. Take Bob, for example, who lives in London. With a degree in chemistry, he worked in industry for 22 years before training as a teacher in 1997. Since then he has applied for over 50 jobs but had only six interviews. Each time the post went to a young person. All he has been able to get is a part-time contract, which has now ended.

Melissa spent 10 years teaching secondary maths before breaking off to undertake educational research. Having gained a PhD in maths education, she wanted to return to teaching but has been unable to get a post.

"Scarce" males also find it difficult to get jobs in primary schools. For example, after 29 years in mechanical engineering and with a degree in environmental science, Dave, in West Yorkshire, was told "a male primary is bound to be snapped up" and "someone with your experience will have no trouble in finding a teaching job". But after countless applications he has still not found a full-time post.

Bob, Melissa and Dave are not alone. The statistics show that those aged 45 and over are twice as likely to be unemployed six months after completing teacher training as those in their twenties. The trend for re-entry from the large pool of trained teachers not employed in schools (there are as many out as in) shows that it is inversely related to the supply of the young newly-trained. When the output from the training institutions falls, schools are willing to take returners, but when it recovers - as in times of recession - they tend to be overlooked.

There seems little doubt that schools do have a preference for younger teachers over older ones. At first sight, this seems surprising, especially since a major criticism of teachers is that many of them know little of the world beyond school. It has been suggested that the apparent bias against older teachers is an unintended consequence of financial delegation. When a pot of money was passed on, based on average salaries, it seemed logical, with the staff bill going up each year through increments, to make new appointments at the bottom of the scale. Indeed, in order to balance the books, many schools encouraged older staff to take advantage of the not ungenerous pension arrangements that were operating at the time.

However, in a secondary school budget of several million pounds, it is hard to see the extra few thousand needed to appoint an older recruit making that much difference, though it might for a small primary school. Now that local authorities have the option of delegating on the basis of actual salaries, even this should be less of a problem.

It may be, therefore, that other factors are involved. In a survey we conducted several years ago, headteachers told us that, where possible, they liked to recruit newly-trained teachers, because they had up-to-date subject knowledge, could better relate to the pupils and had more time and enthusiasm for extra-curricular activities. Older people often had family commitments which made them less mobile and flexible.

Putting all this together, we can begin to see why there are apparently plenty of people willing to teach but not able to get jobs during worrying teacher shortages. But this scenario has profound implications for the Government's policy.

Among the measures to improve recruitment announced in the recent Green Paper are drives to encourage returners, including the retired, back into teaching, and to encourage the suitably qualified unemployed to train as teachers. But these are likely to lead only to more disappointment, if our schools are ageist.

Some of the older teachers not able to get jobs have banded together to campaign under the banner of the Association of Teachers Against Ageism. They have had a number of successes, including being invited to meet the Department for Education and Employment and the Teacher Training Agency.

I am convinced that the apparent unwillingness of schools to take older recruits is an important element in current teacher shortages. The sooner we get to the bottom of it the better.

Alan Smithers is the Sydney Jones Professor of Education at the University of Liverpool (e-mail: