Excuse me a moment while I oil my creaking knees. Well, I would if I could remember where I left them.
I’m prone to such senior moments with alarming frequency. Obviously: I am, after all, on the other side of forty. It’s probably a symptom of having the wrong digit in the ‘tens’ column that I find it a little difficult to judge the significance of my advanced years. On one hand, I’m led to believe that forty is the new black, or some such thing, and that people of this age and beyond enjoy hitherto unknown levels of physical and mental capability. We are, so the story goes, younger than forty-pluses in earlier generations. On the other hand, I work in education, where most people of my age who are not senior managers or headteachers are regarded as borderline demented or worthy of the exit door, if not both.
It seems that I look quite a lot younger than my age, judging by my students’ comments. (I do not state this with any degree of self-congratulation. It’s just a fact of my genetic inheritance; and I’m sure that when everything does start going south, it won’t just be for the winter, and it will be with the momentum of an avalanche.) My response to such remarks tends to be “Oh, do I?”, rather than “Why, thank you”. I understand that they’re meant as compliments, and that these should be accepted with grace. But I also feel an itch to challenge the notion that youth – or the appearance of it – is the only valid state.
And so I should. My job is not only to develop my students’ academic capabilities; it’s also (I believe) to help them to think for themselves, and that may entail questioning the prevailing assumptions by which many of us live. So the conversation often unfolds with me asking why it is A Good Thing that I look younger. It may move on to the way in which we use ‘old’ as a derogatory intensifier: so much worse to be ‘an old fool’ rather than merely ‘a fool’. Then, perhaps, we’ll talk about feelings for grandparents (adoration is touchingly frequent), and how unfair it seems that grandma and grandpa may be regarded as lesser beings because of their age, worthy of patronisation and ‘Do not resuscitate’ notices.
This is, then, the other curriculum we teach, the one about attitudes towards people possibly different from ourselves. We routinely, and rightly, assert the unacceptability of sexism, racism and homophobia. Ageism, however, retains a sturdy foothold in schools – not least in the actions, and sometimes the words, of the adults entrusted with children’s social development.
Last term, our school advertised for a classroom teacher to lead a key stage. The shortlisted candidates were, for the most part, in the first or second year of teaching, with one token oldie thrown in for diversity or comedy value – I’m not sure which. It was depressing to hear that the older candidate would be less able to relate to the students, less able to make tasks interesting, less able to assess quickly – and all before he’d had the opportunity to show what he could do. In the event, he proved to be a very capable classroom practitioner, although – predictably, perhaps – the job was offered to one of the other applicants. Frankly, a fruitbat stood a better chance of landing the gig. The saddest part of this too-edifying spectacle (not bifocal, unfortunately: myopia seemed to have the upper hand) was the frequency with which the candidate was pre-judged by those of comparable age. Nor were such assumptions confined to those with vested interests in appointing a relatively inexperienced applicant. Support staff and other teachers were quick to voice similar, low expectations.
So, what chance of a cultural shift on this matter, when it seems to be endorsed by those with some power to mould perceptions? Ofsted’s Michael Wilshaw has, on more than one occasion, pointed out that most of his staff at Mossbourne Academy were in their twenties and thirties, implying that this was intrinsic to the school’s success. Where do his remarks leave Sir Michael himself, in his mid-sixties? Or do they simply underscore what an exceptional sort he is? His statements about teachers’ morale and stress haven’t exactly endeared him to many in the profession; responses have been swift and impassioned. And yet, his age-related comments – or their implications, at least – appear to have passed under the radar of criticism.
Consider, too, the protests mounted by teachers against mooted changes to their pensions, including raising the retirement age to sixty-eight. My interest here is not so much in the reasoning behind these changes, as in the way some teachers have challenged their proposal. Teaching can be a mentally, emotionally and physically demanding job – more so than many outside, and occasionally inside, the profession imagine. Some decide to cut their losses and run for the hills; others stick it out, rising to the challenges even when they border on the unsustainable. So it’s a fair retort, in my view, to point out how exhausting it would be to have to teach until the suggested retirement age. (The possibility that the government wants teachers to retire early, or remove themselves entirely from the pension scheme is a discussion I’ll save for my next session at Conspiracy Theorists Are Us.) My concern is that, in some quarters, the campaign has shifted from “Who would want to teach until they’re 68?” to “Who would want a 68-year-old teaching their child?”. So near; and yet so far.
There are, of course, situations in which having spent sixty-eight years on the planet is a tangible disadvantage. Twinkly looks from flirtatious parents at school open evenings, for instance, tend to be bestowed upon staff who look young enough to be police constables. Oh, woe is me, left on the sidelines like a dessicated husk while Eros runs amok. However, sixty-eight years on the planet, in and of themselves, are insufficient to justify the kind of stereotyping and discrediting that, in other contexts, we’d abhor. There are, to be fair, a couple of circumstances in which age may be immaterial: if offering one’s services gratis; or if a recent career-changer, in which case a candidate may be rich in experience, while financially cheap. Those who fall outside these categories, be warned.
Sexism, I cackle in your face. Racism, begone and take your bags with you. Homophobia, schmomophobia.
Ageism? The prejudice that, in education, dares to speak its name.