Why FE is feeling its age

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
With 50 per cent of further education staff now over 45, the sector will soon need a transfusion of young blood to safeguard its future. Alan Thomson reports on the FE gerontocracy

What would you do if one in five of your work colleagues was retiring this year? Enjoy a few leaving dos, certainly. But beyond that, what about the huge task of finding the right replacements through promotion or recruitment? While this would potentially create opportunities for you and others, it would also bring upheaval.

How would the changes affect the culture and structure of your department or college? Would an influx of younger staff rob you of your status as one of the younger members of the department and leave you feeling distinctly long in the tooth? Would these "young Turks" begin to meddle with the pedagogy or management practice? Would everything suddenly go all "virtual"?

The scenario is not wholly hypothetical, as 20 per cent of further education teaching staff will hit 65, the statutory retirement age, in the next 10 years. Shuffle down the age groups to, say, 45 and half of all FE teachers will be picking up their free bus passes by 2029.

This makes further education the oldest teaching sector by quite a way. By comparison, 42 per cent of academics and 40 per cent of secondary teachers are currently 45 or over. Thirty-nine per cent of the UK workforce overall is 45 or older.

The education demographic is more striking if one turns it on its heads and looks at the proportions of staff aged 25 to 44. In secondary schools it is 57 per cent, in academe 54 per cent and in colleges just 45 per cent.

In all three sectors the proportions of teaching staff under 25 and over 65 are tiny, although here, again, FE is the oldest sector, with 2 per cent working beyond retirement compared with 1.6 per cent in academe and 0.4 per cent in schools.

One reason for the difference is that FE is often a second or third career for people who have previously worked in industry - "plumbers with rheumatism", as the joke used to go. Many FE teaching jobs require a certain level of experience, meaning that older people often outperform their younger peers in the jobs market.

By comparison, academe is fed from a large pool of young researchers, while school teaching remains a popular first-choice career for new graduates.

But there are other, less obvious, factors at work over longer time spans.

"In the 1970s, when I first came into FE, it was full of twenty- somethings," says Nadine Cartner, direction of policy for the Association of College Managers. "After the Second World War, lots of people must have come in to work in education, and many of them were retiring in the 1970s.

"So the age profile switched pretty rapidly. And it can happen again in a few years when we repopulate FE with younger people."

Stephen McNair, director of the Centre for Research into the Older Workforce, said: "I went into teaching in FE in 1969, and I think if you had a look around the staffrooms they were full of older people who I suppose were probably in their forties and fifties. But there were also a lot of younger people around in their twenties.

"I expect there was a backwash from the expansion of higher education in the 1960s. A lot of graduates would have been taught at the new universities by people not much older than themselves and thought, `I can do this.' But by the end of the 1960s all the university jobs were filled, so people washed back into the polytechnics and FE."

Further education's gerontocracy is not out of kilter with the public sector demographic in general. Job security and attractive pensions mean that people are more likely to work until 65 than, for example, in the financial industries where, at least until recently, the career plan seems to have been to get as rich as possible as quickly as possible and get out before you burn out. But this does not make the FE retirement time bomb any less challenging.

"The real issue is succession planning," said David Hunter, chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK). "It has to be a key strategy in any college to train up younger people to take over roles and to bring in people of the right quality from outside. And good HR people and their principals will be working on this now.

"If not, the risk is skills shortages across further education. We need people who are really capable of delivering. This will mean a different skills base than perhaps we have had in the past - people with management expertise, HR and finance skills."

The prospect of a transfusion of blood into FE from outside and from the younger echelons in the system already is to be welcomed, says Ms Cartner.

"But that's not to say that the wisdom and experience of people is not also tremendously valuable," she added.

Professor McNair believes that age and experience bring mixed benefits to FE.

"I expect that the experience of teaching and the knowledge one builds up over time benefits education, as long as one keeps up to speed with new developments," he said.

"But I guess the pace of technological change is slightly bemusing to anyone over the age of 35. And then there is the scepticism that creeps into those who have been in FE for a long time - a sense that the core job has been neglected in pursuit of new ways of doing things and `rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic'."

Such scepticism may be fuelled if, as looks possible, the new generation of FE teachers has less workplace experience than their older colleagues.

Carolyn Henning-Brodersen, head of information and advice at LLUK, has seen a significant rise in enquiries from people interested in a career in FE.

"There has been a healthy increase in people with backgrounds in law and finance; people who have just graduated and perhaps cannot find jobs in their specialisms. Generally they are a more academically qualified cohort including, perhaps, people who in the past would have thought about teaching in schools."

The scenario is reminiscent of the situation in the late 1960s and 1970s that Professor McNair described, whereby many people went straight from university into FE. But given the premium on experience in the FE jobs market, and the growing amount of work-based learning required, any such trend is likely to be balanced by the need for more experienced staff.

So perhaps the iPod generation will not have it all its own way quite so soon. As Professor McNair points out, there are too few young people to fill the 13 million vacancies that will arise as a result of retirement in the UK over the next 10 years.

"We won't fill all of these with immigrants and people working longer, but the idea that we all retire at 65 is certainly changing," he said.

`People should work for as long as they feel able'

Many people work for a few years beyond retirement, but Hilda Stratford must be one of the few to enjoy a 20-year teaching career after first picking up her pension.

Every Monday 88-year-old Mrs Stratford gets in her car and drives to work to teach word-processing skills to people with a range of physical andor learning disabilities for the Workers' Educational Association (WEA).

"It gives me something to do," she said. "I live alone and this means I'm not tied to the house. Plus I enjoy passing on my skills and knowledge, especially to the people I now work with.

"The students get a great deal from the word-processing class. It is delivered on an individual basis to suit their specific needs and abilities.

"And I mark their work and talk through any mistakes. I help them to produce a folder of work and that allows them to see how they are progressing."

Mrs Stratford developed an interest in word processing while working at Dinnington High School, now Dinnington Comprehensive, in Rotherham. She retired in 1985 as head of secretarial studies.

After the death of her husband in 1989, Mrs Stratford was asked if she had considered teaching for the WEA. It was through the association that she found her current job at the Eastgate Resource Centre in Worksop, Nottinghamshire.

"I don't think we value older people's knowledge and experience," she said. "And I do not think there should be a compulsory retirement age. People should be able to continue working for as long as they feel able.

"I agree with the pension, though, because I couldn't live off my wages for teaching one day a week. My one day at work pays for my car."

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