Young people don't want to be teachers, a trend that is pushing the profession into a recruitment crisis. Now that two-thirds of the teaching force is over 40, isn't it time we started valuing older staff more? Elaine Williams opens a six-page analysis of the predicament - and potential - of the fortysomethings.
In the next decade, it may be as cool to be 40-something as it is now to be 30-something. The fact that we are living longer and feeling fitter for longer is leading to early middle age being redefined as "middle youth". The establishment of magazines such as Red, aimed at middle swingers, is a sign that perceptions are changing. We are refusing to grow old gracefully.
But there will always be a lag between the trendsetters putting a marketable gloss on shifts in society and changes in perception by the general public, which still believes that people over 40 are disadvantaged by their age. This is not helped by the fact that a sizeable proportion of people over 50 find themselves on the jobs scrap-heap.
During the past 10 years, the number of men and women classed as economically inactive over the age of 40 has grown from 79,000 to 4.2 million. The effect of companies "downlayering" and "downsizing" has meant that older workers have tended to go first.
A recent Gallup survey for Age Concern indicated that more than 18 million people feel they have experienced age discrimination, and 70 per cent of the population believes it exists.
Teachers are no different in this respect - a serious matter for an ageing profession in which 60 per cent of men and women are over 40. Ageism is not an issue that teachers tend to take to their unions or professional bodies, but the generally held belief that if you are not a head of department by your early 30s, a deputy by your late 30s and a head by your early 40s you have somehow missed the boat, has tended to add to the gloom of a body of people badly lacking in self-esteem.
The balloons were up last week for a 50th birthday in a County Durham comprehensive staffroom. There was an air of corporate sympathy, an affable resignation among colleagues. "We prided ourselves on being a young staff once - and most of us are still here," confided one 45-year-old head of department, who had made a stab at deputy headships several years back but now regards himself as too old to try again.
Practices by schools such as Rainsford High School in Chelmsford, Essex, which announced in information sent out to applicants for a recent deputy headship that it was looking for someone aged between 30 and 36, although older candidates would be considered, only confirm such beliefs.
Other factors contributing to this orthodoxy are the trend - ended by the recent tightening of the early-retirement rules - for teachers to quit the profession in their mid-50s; the tendency for redundancy schemes to pick out older and more experienced members of staff; and the general perception that mature entrants are either too expensive or too risky.
But given the dearth of young entrants to the profession, combined with the putting back of retirement age by new pension regulations, it is an orthodoxy that is dangerously ignoring a huge pool of mature talent.
There are signs that this is being recognised in employment generally. French law forbids age limits in jobs advertising as well as redundancy on grounds of age, and while a private member's bill brought by Linda Perham, MP for Ilford North, was shelved, the Government has agreed to bring in a code of practice on ageism, largely through the campaigning of bodies such as the Institute of Personnel Development and the Employers Forum on Age, established to put the business case for employing older people.
According to Dianah Worman, policy adviser on equal opportunities at the IPD, employers are beginning to see the wisdom of having a mixed-age workforce, of having access to the widest pool of talent by developing older people. The consequences of skills shortages, combined with an ageing workforce, are beginning to dawn. "If there is a shortage, that will stimulate change to happen," she says.
In teaching, also, there are signs of change. In particular, the current House of Commons select committee inquiry into the role of the headteacher is looking at ways of encouraging schools to consider older applicants. It has also considered the possibility of taking people from industry directly into headship.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers passed a resolution at its last assembly for its executive committee to investigate recruitment practices and discrimination on grounds of age, and disparities between the number of women in the profession and the number holding promoted posts.
Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the ATL, says there has to be a more ready acceptance of the "scenic route" up the career ladder. "Recruitment by anno domini is a lazy shortcut," she says, "but when it comes to promotion there is an unspoken consensus among many teachers that there is a cut-off point. Teachers don't want to risk rejection as they get older.
"Also, with redundancy in the air, as it is in many parts of the country, teachers in their 40s are worried that if they go for promotion, they will be perceived as being on the move and are, therefore, a target for being the next to go."
Teachers who enjoy their classroom job tend also to leave things late. John Howson, an education analyst specialising in teacher recruitment, says:
"They might get stuck into something for 10 or even 15 years without realising they are getting older. There is very little professional development in teaching. Few teachers in their 30s are asked to consider where their career is going. And where you have a teacher in a shortage subject such as maths, there is no incentive for a head to say: 'You are a good teacher, you would make a good head of department' and run the risk of losing them."
Nevertheless, some teachers in their 40s are going for broke, particularly women-returners who have raised their families and come back with renewed energy and ambition. "In the past women have not been as persistent as men in applying for senior posts," says Miss Evans, "but there is evidence that they are coming forward and at a later age, and are prepared to put in as many applications as is necessary." A large majority of teachers taking the National Professional Qualification for Headship are over 40 and more than 50 per cent are women.
Schools are also beginning to consider the downside of taking younger heads. Not only are such applicants in short supply, but, once in post, a school might be stuck with them for 20 years.
King Edward's in Birmingham, a top independent school, has always appointed heads in their 50s, with a view to them doing about eight years in the job. The independent sector has traditionally had teachers working to normal retirement age and has considered older people for promotion who have built up their subject strength.
On the other hand, the sector has had some spectacularly young heads. Michael Mather, last year's chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmis-tresses' Conference, was head of Gordonstoun at the age of 31. Ian Beer, current chairman of the Independent Schools Council, was appointed head of Ellesmere College at 28.
Vivian Anthony, HMC's general secretary, says: "If you have a star teacher in your school, then you really are under pressure to push them through the system or risk losing them. And that might not always be in the best interests of the school. Somebody young and fizzy is not necessarily going to be better than somebody experienced.
"One of the most distinguished heads in HMC was considerably older and had to make 39 applications before his first appointment. A lot of people put in half a dozen applications, get disheartened and put it down to age."
So, could it be that the golden age of 40-something is just around the corner? In which case, just keep banging in those applications.
* SEASONED PERFORMERS
Bob Godber has been around for a long time. He taught politics to William Hague, the Conservative party leader, so he must be getting on. But he's not too old for promotion it seems.
Having spent the whole of his teaching career in Wath comprehensive school, South Yorkshire, where he tutored the young William, he was appointed head there last year at the age of 55. He had been a deputy since the age of 41. He says: "I didn't want to move. I felt comfortable and happy in the school.
"Young Turks are becoming less popular with governing bodies. To have a new broom coming in on top of all the external change schools have had to cope with is not seen as particularly useful."
Tom Chadd, head of Rainsford High School, an 11-18 comprehensive in Chelmsford, Essex, does not believe his search for a deputy in the 30-36 age range showed prejudice against older teachers. He was merely trying to match the person to the job.
"I have a young staff with boundless energy," he says, "and I wanted somebody to lead that young staff.
"I wanted someone who would come here, give us four or five years, and then move on to a headship. Every school needs a turnover of fresh ideas and faces."
You couldn't have a more orthodox career pattern than that of Lesley Hughes. In her early 20s she was assistant head of English in a secondary school, at 28 she was a head of house, at 33 a deputy, and at 39 she became head of Longcroft School, an 11-18, 1,370-strong comprehensive in Beverley, near Hull, a post she has held for nine years.
But the 1980s expectation that people would gain headships before they were 40 is now "thankfully" changing in the more eclectic 90s. "There is a shift," she says. "People are taking more time about their careers, and that is giving us a better profile.
"Also, governing bodies are applying selection criteria more formally than in the past, and if 40-year-olds fit the bill, then they are being taken on."