`I'm experienced, dynamic and on the ball. So why can't I get a job?'

20th March 2015 at 00:00
When Rae Gilbert tried to find work, every door was shut in her face. The reason? She's over 50. Forced to confront the rise of ageism in schools, she wonders why headteachers won't employ older teachers when they have so much to offer

I am out of touch, I am a risk, I am too expensive. I am too set in my ways, I am devoid of new ideas and inflexible about the ideas of others. I'm over 50, you see: these things are the inevitable baggage of my age. And that makes me unemployable in schools.

It came as a shock, the revelation that people in education could think this way. I had moved from one end of the country to the other and was looking for a new job. Sending off applications, I was confident. I wasn't discerning - I applied to all types of schools - and I had a very good track record of success both as a teacher and as a senior manager; I had the references to prove it. And jobs are not scarce: every week brings new reports of a looming recruitment crisis in teaching.

How naive I was. I never heard back from many of the schools I applied to. Those who did reply were negative. Confused, I asked around, did some research and requested feedback from failed applications. That's when the revelation occurred: although I was experienced, dynamic and up to date with current teaching practice, I was over 50 and apparently that meant getting a new job in education was impossible.

A certain age

You may think I'm exaggerating, but my experience doesn't appear to be an isolated one. A quick scan of the forums on the TES website reveals a plethora of similar stories.

"I applied for school-related jobs but quickly realised I was being used as the token over-50 male at interviews, so I don't waste my time any more," a teacher says. He gave up and joined a different profession.

"I am just not getting interviews," another adds. "I know there are laws against ageism but it's not difficult to work out age from secondary school qualifications. I've applied for plenty of jobs and still nothing. Has my career ended? Because that's what it feels like."

And those who turn to supply work as an alternative face similar issues. "We just don't get the jobs," says Lesley King, a primary teacher in the North East of England. "I know several great teachers who have opted to teach supply as they can't get a full-time job, and it's the same story for all of us: for the most part we are a last resort only and the jobs go to the younger teachers on the books."

The data suggests that beyond the milestone of your 50th birthday, if you stay put instead of moving schools you can continue in employment happily. The Department for Education's statistics for England's 2013 school workforce (the latest year for which figures are available) reveal that "teachers in primary schools aged 50 and over make up 18.6 per cent of all primary school teachers, compared with 19.5 per cent of teachers in secondary schools". So roughly a fifth of teachers are over 50, which, with early retirement taken into consideration, you may think is about right (although it still seems very low to me).

Unfortunately, these statistics tell us little about whether older teachers are able to move jobs. Perhaps more telling research, then, came in December last year when The Times reported that three-quarters of free schools have no staff over the age of 50. Also of interest is the fact that the government and teaching unions have stated that there is an issue with the employment of people over 50.

Ros Altmann, the government's "champion" for older workers, said in January that job applicants should disguise O-levels on their CVs because they might suffer age discrimination for holding older qualifications.

The NASUWT teaching union, meanwhile, acknowledges that age discrimination is a huge issue for teachers.

"All the evidence shows that discrimination is rife in the workplace," says general secretary Chris Keates. "NASUWT evidence shows that older women teachers are particularly vulnerable and the union has a wealth of information about them being denied access to professional development, being targeted inappropriately for capability procedures and being put under pressure to leave the profession."

Priced out

So what's going on? The UK has rigorous age discrimination laws in place (see panel, opposite) so this shouldn't be happening. Yet it is. The reasons, I've discovered, are multiple.

The first problem is financial. Someone who has held top jobs and been a teacher for some time is obviously going to be more expensive than younger, less experienced applicants, because of pay scales and because younger teachers are usually willing to work for less.

A secondary headteacher in the North of England admits that financial concerns do have an impact on recruitment.

"If I can employ a talented newly qualified teacher who is eager to learn and ready to give 100 per cent to the school, I would consider this to be excellent value for money," he says. "When considering a more experienced, more expensive teacher, I would want to ensure that the additional cost is going to result in better teaching, faster progress and a greater impact on the wider school."

King believes pay is a factor in the supply world, too. "My former headteacher was very honest with me: I'm too expensive to employ unless there is a specific need for someone of my experience and former level of responsibility," she explains.

Thankfully, some school leaders think differently. "I do have to make decisions regarding the budget, but equally, quality teachers are my priority," says a primary headteacher in Dorset. "I will therefore commit more to my budget to employ an enthusiastic, passionate and experienced teacher and accept that this might have a knock-on effect in terms of the redecoration of classrooms or replacing laptops. My staff have to remain my non-negotiable."

The second and third reasons for shunning the over-50s are more personal: we are thought of as difficult and out of touch.

On the former point, young staff are likely to be more malleable and not yet experienced enough to answer back. Us over-50s have been around, and managers are nervous that we will have the confidence to challenge decisions or, worse, expose bad practice. Many of these managers are under 50, which adds an extra element of fear.

"When I was a very young and inexperienced head, I was worried about `difficult' older teachers and I would back down from things through that lack of confidence," admits a headteacher in the North of England, who took charge of the school when he was under 30. Later, though, he found his closest allies were those very same older teachers, with one even becoming his mentor.

On the "out of touch" point, the perception is that because we trained so long ago, our knowledge of current best practice is lacking, either through negligence or a belief that the old ways are the best. Numerous teachers have told me that headteachers correlate a lack of buzzwords on application forms with a lack of knowledge about the latest trends in education, rather than a choice to call something what it actually is.

Likewise, there is an assumption that older teachers are too set in their ways: at interview, any discussion of teaching practice regarded as vaguely "modern" has a patronising, "Would you be able to cope with this?" tone. It's ludicrous.

The last key issue is not just restricted to teaching. There is a growing hostility to old age in general in UK society. Politicians, chief executives, headteachers - they are all getting younger. We don't trust age any more; we don't revere wisdom. We believe that progress comes from young blood, not experience. We feel that an older person who shows signs of being able to make a valuable contribution is the exception rather than the norm.

There is a nasty undercurrent to this attitude. The over-50s are increasingly cast as opportunist baby boomers who stole all the money, houses and jobs, leaving the younger generation with nothing; or a drain on society who will grow old and bankrupt health services and eat up the welfare budget by having the audacity to live too long. The problems for over-50s in teaching may be symptomatic of a wider attack on age.

Explaining the ridiculousness of these "reasons" should not be necessary. But apparently some in education need it spelled out for them. So here's the case for the over-50s.

My first stop when struggling to find work was to make sure that I wasn't simply a bad candidate. I visited an academy in London and I didn't see anything in the classrooms that I had not done myself; there were no miraculous or extraordinary approaches to teaching and learning, discipline or management that I hadn't already used. Rest assured, future employers, us over-50s are perfectly capable of being "current".

But we are more than current. We have a wealth of experience, which we supplement with the latest thinking. We know what has worked in the past and what hasn't, be it in pedagogy, behaviour management or school leadership. That conversation with a struggling student? That discussion with an overbearing parent? That experience with a heartbreaking home situation? We've been through it all before. We know how one school leader made things work and got staff on board whereas another one isolated teachers and drove the school's results down. We can assess the latest strategies in the context of the last fad and the one before that. We have proven ourselves flexible in an ever-changing educational landscape and can lead the way when it changes again.

Teachers of this age are also likely to be parents themselves, well aware of the stresses and strains of bringing up teenagers. We can empathise with and understand students in a different, rather than better, way from younger teachers. This alternative perspective may prove the key to engaging and inspiring a young person. We all know that one teacher can make the difference to a student's life - what if that one teacher was excluded because of an inaccurate prejudice based on age?

Wealth of wisdom

Older teachers offer other benefits, too. "For me, more mature teachers can prove to be more reliable than their younger and cheaper counterparts," says the headteacher in Dorset. "Maternity leave is no longer an issue, for example, and requests to go part-time are rare."

Mike Fairclough, the headteacher of West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, says: "I find that experienced, mature teachers are generally better at behaviour management, people skills and organisation."

And John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School in York, argues that schools are missing out on valuable knowledge if they shun older teachers.

"Wisdom is a rare commodity in our schools," he says. "Wisdom comes with age and experience. My first ever appointment as a headteacher was a 59-year-old special educational needs coordinator; she still rates as one of the best appointments I have ever made."

As heartening it is to hear such views, it is overwhelmingly sad that so many don't seem to share them. That this feature needed to be written at all says so much about the dreadful situation in schools. We preach tolerance and tell students that everybody can achieve, that there are no limitations, and yet the profession tells over-50s the opposite. Many headteachers are shocked that it has reached such a point.

Deborah Leek-Bailey has run schools in both the independent and state sector, and says: "Luckily I have never encountered ageism in the workplace but I know plenty of colleagues who have. Only those with limited imaginations refuse to employ older people, and then it makes you wonder what they are afraid of."

Jill Berry, who has worked across all leadership levels, including as a headteacher, adds: "Headteachers have to employ the best person for the job, regardless of age, race, sex or anything else. If you don't, you are not getting the best practitioner for the position and that is not only illegal but is to the disadvantage of the staff and students at the school. They deserve the best person available and I would be shocked to think that a headteacher would deny a school such a person on the basis that they are over 50.

"I have interviewed people at 58 or 59 and they have that spark - you know they are an exceptional, engaging and inspiring teacher. I have interviewed teachers in their thirties who lack that. And if I employ someone at 50, think how many years of outstanding service I could get from that person - they could be with you for 15 years and have a massive impact.

"We have to realise - and in this `we' I include school leaders, younger teachers and most importantly those teachers over 50 - that age is just a number. It has no bearing on ability, or willingness to change, or desire to learn. It is irrelevant."

I agree with Berry on everything except the last point. Age is relevant: not as a tool to persecute but as a reason to employ. We live in an ageing society, full of people from whom we can learn but still struggle to appreciate. We must not shut them out. We need to embrace age, celebrate it for what it brings to a school, a classroom, a child. If we do, the world of education, and ultimately society, will be richer for it.

Rae Gilbert is a pseudonym. The writer is a teacher in the South West of England

The age discrimination law and how to use it

Matthew Wolton, an education law specialist and a partner at Harrison Clark Rickerbys, advises teachers on their legal rights.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits the following:

Direct discrimination

This is where a school treats someone less favourably because of their age. As an example, using the term "youthful enthusiasm" in a job advert is discriminatory.

Indirect discrimination

This is where a school does anything that disadvantages someone because of their age. A job advert stating that a vacancy "would suit candidates in the first five years of their career" counts as indirect discrimination, because older teachers would be more likely to have more than five years' experience.


Unwanted conduct related to age that is offensive, such as referring to someone as "granddad", comes under the heading of harassment.


Schools cannot unfairly treat someone because they have made, or are going to make, an age discrimination complaint.

Bringing a claim

Claims for age discrimination should, in general, be started within three months of the incident and can be brought before an employment tribunal. It has been mandatory since May 2014 to attempt conciliation through employment relations body Acas before bringing a claim, so the best first step is usually to contact the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

And remember:

The act protects both a school's existing employees and job applicants.

Youth is protected as much as old age.

Discrimination can be acceptable if there is "objective justification".

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