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Hang Ups

I asked a callow youth to show me the way to the deputy head's office. "I am the deputy head," he replied, with a smirk. It was true. He was in sole charge of the local management of schools budget and looked barely old enough to have his own bank account.

When I pointed this out to him - tactfully, I hope - he replied: "We're a young staff." It wasn't an apology or an excuse. The man was actually boasting. A "young staff" might win hands down on a Ten Tors hike, or "havin' it large" in an Ibiza foam party, but when it comes to the business of teaching, wrinkles and grey hairs count for more than diplomas and youthful exuberance.

It's always an encouraging sign to see a staffroom littered with brochures for SAGA holidays, empty Sanatogen bottles, mislaid bifocals, emergency supplies of HRT patches, open jars of denture cream and long playing records by the Rolling Stones. Young teachers - a school needs a few if only to help move heavier items of furniture - make every effort to age prematurely. It's heartening to see that the Government's educational initiatives have done much to accelerate this process.

Teachers, like good wine, improve with age, but sadly the same cannot be said for computers. Buy the latest machine, and before you've swept up the last of the polystyrene chips, you will have read advertisements and magazine articles reminding you that there is a newer, more powerful model. Within two or three years of its purchase, a computer might still have all its electronic marbles, but you can be sure that it won't be capable of running the latest software, and will need to be replaced. For instance, a school computer that isn't capable of delivering multimedia looks like a museum piece to kids who have got the latest kit in their bedrooms, and whose Christmas stockings bulged with educational CD-Roms.

Schools never have been able to keep up with the pace of change in IT - and things are getting worse. I wrote last week about a worrying survey conducted by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). It revealed that primary schools are planning to reduce spending on resources by 11.6 per cent while secondaries will do so by 9.9 per cent - and that IT will have to bear the brunt of these cutbacks. It's a cause of great concern to BESA's members as it will result in a Pounds 50m loss in revenue.

A school will only be able to devote more of its budget to IT if it can make savings on the amount paid to teachers. A "young staff", of course, doesn't cost much - teachers in their salad days will work happily for little more than a packet of Dolly Mixtures. It's the wrinklies who cost a fortune. So it does rather seem as if school managers and governors are faced with a simple choice: new technology or old teachers.

Unfortunately these decision-makers read the newspapers and magazines which constantly remind them that IT can perform educational miracles, while all those lefty has-beens grizzling in the staffroom are hell-bent on creating a nation of illiterates. Teachers urgently need to mount a counter-attack. They might not be able to buy acres of advertising space, but they can glad-hand every parent they meet, and remind them that when it comes to the infinitely complex business of teaching, a Mr (and Ms) Chips will always out-perform Pentium chips.

Once the message gets through, parents will insist that schools cling on to their most experienced staff. Indeed, there will be demands that the old-timers should never be allowed to retire. In which case, BESA's members needn't worry about that lost Pounds 50m. All they have to do is forget about IT and diversify instead into bath chairs and zimmer frames.

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