Forget youthful enthusiasm, VSO now wants senior staff who can mix it with ministers. Michael Shaw reports
Retired teachers John and Rosemary Reid are more ambitious than the average backpacker or wide-eyed gap-year student who takes time off to live in Nepal.
Instead of teaching English in a single school, they are working with ministers and civil servants in the capital Kathmandu to help restructure the country's education system.
Mr Reid, aged 60, was head of Coombe Dean secondary in Plymouth for 12 years and is working in the foreign aid section of Nepal's education ministry, which is based in an ancient palace.
His 58-year-old wife, who is an experienced primary teacher, is helping Nepal's education department develop training for school managing bodies.
It is because of the impact that such senior teachers can have at government level that Voluntary Services Overseas this week announced a radical change to its education work.
The charity said it would no longer recruit inexperienced or newly-qualified teachers to teach in developing countries because they made little difference.
Instead it will focus on finding senior or retiring teachers and expect all of its education volunteers to be involved in school management or teacher training. Some will work with groups of schools, while others will be based within training colleges, education ministries and local authorities, working on matters such as curriculum development.
The decision is not meant as a criticism of the thousands of young teachers who VSO has helped to find placements in schools over the past 50 years.
But the charity said it needed to recruit more experienced teachers if it was to help poor countries meet the millennium development goal of giving all primary-age children quality education by 2015.
It hopes that many of its two-year education placements will be similar to the one which Mr and Mrs Reid began in September. Both said they find the work in Nepal worthwhile, although they missed classroom teaching.
Mr Reid said: "It used to be illegal in Nepal to educate peasants, so the country has practically gone from nought to 28,000 schools in a single generation. When you see how bare and under-resourced the classrooms are, you gasp."
The Reids said their daughter Juliet, who teaches at Norton Hill school in Somerset, had benefited greatly from a VSO placement in Ethiopia four years ago when she began her teaching career.
But they said they respected the charity's decision to recruit more senior teachers instead. Mr Reid said: "We get to grapple with the problems. Our daughter's placement in Ethiopia was more difficult than ours, but I think if you went back there now it would be hard to find a trace of her work."
Penny Lawrence, international programmes director for VSO, said many developing countries had problems with the management of schools which led to poor teaching which put children off learning.
"In developing countries, where access to education can literally be a matter of life and death, addressing these issues is crucial," she said.
"There is a real concern that children will leave school unless standards are improved."
Five years ago only 5 per cent of the VSO's education placements included training and management responsibilities.
The charity needs to recruit 372 senior teachers by Easter if it is to meet its commitments to partners overseas. It hopes many of the 5,000 headteachers in England who are aged over 55 and are now approaching retirement will continue volunteering.