Unfit at 50?

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Age restrictions may not be prominent in most ads for teaching posts, though there is often a fairly transparent code ("Would suit graduate seeking first post"). It's a different matter if you want a headship.

Headship ads seem to say as a matter of course that candidates must be aged between 35 and 50. Such a restriction is grossly unfair, at a stroke ruling that wisdom, experience and seniority make you unfit for the top jobs, and scything through the ranks of likely applicants.

Teachers are law-abiding citizens. We tell examination classes: "Read the questions. Answer what you are asked, not what you hoped you would be asked. Obey the rules."

It's a bit like a No Parking sign: parking is prohibited, although not impossible if you're feeling brave or bloody-minded. But retribution will surely follow. You suspect that, on receiving an "over-age" application, an advertiser who has stipulated an age restriction will at best throw it in the bin, and at worse return it marked in red ink: "Can't you read, Sunshine?"

Women in particular are hit by the age bar. I am a better teacher and manager for my six years at university and 10 years out of full-time employment raising a family, but I'm also older than I should be for someone who has spent 17 years in classrooms - and I am not untypical for my generation. If I landed a headship at 49, would I be a better head than if I were 50 and a day?

On the contrary, many a 50-year-old - of either sex - has fewer family responsibilities and financial worries, enabling them to give more to a demanding job than they could have done in their forties. More freedom of movement across the country, too, without teenagers wailing that they don't want to change schools because a parent happens to be ambitious.

Fitness cannot be the problem as headships always demand full medicals. Energy levels and commitment would presumably be subject to comment in references. The fact that a head appointed at 50-plus would have less than 10 years to serve might be a good thing - at least there wouldn't be much danger of them getting stuck in a rut. And, anyway, is there not a trend for defined term contracts - say five years - at this level?

Since the Government has removed the possibility of early retirement, some avenues of promotion must be left open in the interests of motivation and movement and to prevent gridlock. To close off both the bolthole and the top jobs seems senseless, particularly at a time when there are more headships available than ever before. Age restrictions must be relaxed, or some posts will never be filled.

Hilary Moriarty is an ageing deputy head in the independent sector

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