Spectre of ageism stalks professional recruits

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Efforts to attract experienced people from other professions into teaching are being hindered by a perception of age discrimination in schools

Efforts to attract experienced people from other professions into teaching are being hindered by a perception of age discrimination in schools

Older teachers entering the classroom after working in other professions often find they struggle to get the same job opportunities as younger colleagues. Experts have warned that a perceived age discrimination could undermine government efforts to woo experienced business executives, scientists and engineers into teaching.

New figures from the Teacher Support Network (TSN) show that teachers who enter the profession later in life have greater difficulty with career progression.

This was the leading concern of new teachers aged over 35 who have called the network's helpline this year. By contrast, teachers aged under 35 were more worried about their working conditions.

The number of teacher trainees who are mature students has increased dramatically in recent years. Half of all primary trainees are now aged over 25, as are 62 per cent of all secondary trainees.

The data is reinforced by a major study published last week by England's General Teaching Council (GTC), which found younger teachers are more likely to be given additional roles and responsibilities within their first two years.

Patrick Nash, chief executive of the TSN, called on schools to recognise older teachers' experience and aspirations.

"This raises concerns about the way older people are treated when they join the profession," he said. "There has been a concerted effort within education to harness the particular skills of those with experience outside teaching and this effort should be applauded."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, accused school and local authority leadership of "ageism". If ministers wished to woo career-changers from outside education, he said, they needed to set in place support and opportunities for them to progress.

"I think there's an ageist conception that somehow it's the young teachers we need to nurture," he said. "Professional development opportunities are not as good for older teachers as they are for younger ones."

But headteachers denied discriminating against older entrants, suggesting that those with a business background might harbour unrealistic expectations of promotion.

Margaret Griffin, an Association of Schools and College Leaders adviser, said older entrants, with experience in commerce or industry, sometimes expected promotion within their first couple of years.

"Older people coming into schools often have family ties that cause them to look for a nine-to-five job," she said. "Teaching is not a nine-to-five job."

The Becoming a Teacher study, commissioned by the GTC and two government agencies, says younger entrants are more likely to be made a primary subject coordinator or secondary form tutor. And they are more often given help with planning their professional development, and included in formal discussions about school issues.

While younger teachers are more likely to be involved in school trips and extra-curricular activities, older entrants are more likely to be asked to cover classes for absent teachers.

Critically, they say that their prior experiences and skills are not given sufficient consideration.

However the Training and Development Agency for Schools insisted that did not mean that older teachers found it more difficult to progress. A spokeswoman said the agency encouraged training and development for all teachers.

The Employment Tribunal is soon to hear a claim against Oxfordshire County Council from a 50-year-old teacher who claims she suffered age discrimination at her school. Her union, the NASUWT, is supporting her.

David Porter graduated as a teacher last year and is teaching business studies part time in a north London secondary school.

But Mr Porter is not your archetypal newly qualified teacher: he is 41, and has spent most of his life working as a chartered accountant, then as a financial journalist, and then a share broker.

Though he would not expect promotion in his first year of teaching, he is frustrated at the lack of opportunities offered to older entrants such as himself.

"There are people who have spent all their careers in teaching, whereas I've done things at a fairly high level in other professions," says Mr Porter. "I think my colleagues recognise some of the experience I bring, but there's still a fair way to go."

For him, the challenge is as much his part-time hours as his age. He finds it more difficult to be part of the school's day-to-day life and finds himself more often roped in to cover other teachers' lessons.

Mr Porter believes the problems with age discrimination are around perception. A teacher who looks older may be mistakenly regarded as less physically able.

"You are not allowed to discriminate on age but, as with women going for promotion, some employers are worried that older people may be a burden," he said.

"Teaching has been a pretty tough transition - but I've done other transitions and they were equally tough."

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