Fun-time for wise old birds

26th May 2006 at 01:00
We're all going to have to go on longer, you know. No point hiding our heads in the sand. We self-employed will be hawking our pathetic wares well into our seventies, thanks to various dodgy pinstriped bandits in the endowment industry. Employees of all sorts - except a very lucky few - will be working on well beyond their 65th birthdays.

You teachers may have snatched a bit of respite from the Treasury's grinding jaws this time round, but don't be fooled. The Treasury always wins in the end. Bet you anything that within a decade or so anyone who totters out of the classroom aged 60 will then spend a few years doing private coaching, knocking out soft toys, trading on eBay, or possibly retraining as nosey-parker government inspectors for the crackpot new Hip (home information packs) industry. Face it: a few years from now, everyone's pension is going to be slower to arrive or a hell of a lot smaller.

So here is a modest proposal. Let the teaching profession put its great brains to work on a scheme to make something fine and inspiring out of the past five years. Let us find a way to beautify the extra half-decade and prevent Mr Chips mutating into Mr Chippy. I have been working on the following wheeze, which complements my revolutionary No Tax Returns for Over-Seventies Bill.

My educational breakthrough for school teachers is called the WOB initiative: an acronym for Wise Old Birds (substitute another B-word if you wish). What happens is this: when a teacher reaches 60, he or she may apply to become a WOB for the last five years.

Not everyone will be accepted, of course, because some will be designated as OBOs, or Officially Burned Out, and encouraged to leave and do something else. But the WOBs who stayed in school would enter a totally new phase of working life. They would be expected to teach the usual hours, but remain exempt from all paperwork. No marking, assessment, record-keeping or requirement to submit lesson plans. Nor need they follow the curriculum in any but the sketchiest outline.

Ofsted inspectors will be told to leave them alone, since WOBhood in its own right represents an accolade and a guarantee of real (if perhaps offbeat) merit. To avoid undue pressure on younger colleagues, each school will be allowed a finite proportion of WOB teachers, so there may be some shuffling around as each generation matures and qualifies.

The WOBs' function would be to teach, in the oldest and most relaxed tradition: sitting under a tree in the summer or in a well-stuffed shabby velvet armchair in the WOB room in winter (probably with a fire flickering). They would be wise wrinkled old gurus, elders of the tribe set apart from the bustle and bureaucracy of the school day.

Pupils would have timetabled sessions with them, a blessed relief from the tickbox life of Sats and worry. In primary schools WOBs would lead old-fashioned nature walks, demonstrate toy steam engines, and relate bloodcurdling heroics and legends. In secondary schools they would be responsible for the transmission of culture and good habits of thought: they would conduct Socratic dialogues with pupils, teach them to think outside the box, toss radical ideas at them, tell them about the natural world with wonder and give them a thrilling narrative sense of history.

They would tease them with paradoxes the way teachers used to, in a Dumbledoreish way (long white beards would be encouraged, though perhaps not for women).

WOBs would probably have less trouble keeping order, since it is an observable fact that stroppy teenagers have a mysterious habit of bonding with their grandparents, who are less of a threat than the combative and overstressed middle generation. And it goes without saying that the benign school WOB would also be available to nervous newly qualified teachers with advice, nips of sherry and anecdotes about how much worse they used to foul up in their young days, and how in the long run everything works out just fine. Young fast-track heads could come and see them sometimes, and get sage advice from people with no desire whatsoever to usurp or patronise them.

Imagine the steadying effect of these old buffers (playing a bit older than their real age, obviously). But also imagine how much fun it would be to become one: you would actually look forward to the day after your 60th birthday and your promotion to being an official WOB. Think of the pleasure of those last five years - just teaching, opening minds, enjoying the company of youth again with none of the aggravation of over-directed mainstream teaching. You'd never want to leave, would you?

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