Years ago, the conversation was a lot more brutal. Tasked with getting rid of staff who were past their sell-by date, a manager of my acquaintance began with a parable: "I don't hold with vets. The kindest way of dealing with an old, faithful dog is to take it to the bottom of the garden and shoot it." After an avuncular but terminal pat on the back, the perplexed employee was presented with a cheque and ushered out the door.
Teaching was never so unkind. It is, however, taxing. And as budgets are cut, curricula change and expectations rise, it shouldn't be surprising if some older teachers, after decades of devoted service, conclude that the pimply youths in the classroom are only slightly less annoying than the pimply youths in the senior leadership team. Why indulge tiresome pupils and interfering managers when you can cruise to retirement?
This presents a problem for management. Should it leave cranky old codgers in peace in the sunset of their careers? Or should it bite the bullet - or, to be more exact, fire one in their direction?
One columnist, after much agonising, has chosen tolerance over termination ("No one deserves the knacker's yard", page 17). It's simply unfair to sack someone who has been a brilliant teacher for 30 years and a Victor Meldrew for only a few, they argue. And in any case, we'll all be in the same boat one day, struggling to eke out enthusiasm as we soldier on in work until we turn 70. Shouldn't we all show a little compassion in the realisation that one day it will be us?
Some schools will be able to shepherd flagging veterans into non-teaching roles. Others will have identified the problem early and offered training. But where that isn't an option or it's too late, how soft should schools be?
The hard answer is: not very. It may be comforting to coddle someone now because it helps to soothe the fears we have about our own future. But is that anything other than self-indulgence, a psychological excursion from difficult stuff?
Moreover, it's wrong and patronising to equate advanced age with low enthusiasm. Some teachers will slow down; others will make the Duracell Bunny look soporific. Some will be complacent; others will continue to improve. Some won't acquire new skills when the old ones become redundant; others will. Some will count the hours and days to retirement; others will refuse to go quietly. It's not about age, it's about attitude; and those that have the right one should not have to carry those who do not.
That sounds about as compassionate as Stalin would be hosting the Weakest Link. But sympathy shouldn't trump responsibility. No matter how good fading teachers once were, no matter how many years they have put in at the chalkface, a school's number one duty must be to its pupils.
It doesn't matter if the member of staff is old, young, recently divorced or bereft because their cat had an altercation with a car. The price of letting permanently disengaged staff continue to teach is that children's learning will suffer. And why should they pay? Ultimately, they will not have a choice. But the adults in charge do.