Walking through the main exhibition hall of the Education Show when it is empty is what I imagine it to be like to walk along a catwalk in New York Fashion Week; there was not a single eye that wasn’t on me. Like vultures, as I walked past each stall, every sales person’s eyes were immediately drawn towards me. Not looking into my eyes though, in fact they opted to direct their gaze to my identification badge in order to determine if my role/sector would be a prime target for sales. ‘Lecturer in Teaching Training’ they saw and their eyes quickly moved up and down and then a period of confusion ensued. The look on their faces… if only I had a camera (I did, but that’s beside the point).
Down one aisle, I was pounced upon by a sales person who immediately asked if I was a teacher. “Yes”, I replied. “You didn’t get teachers like you in my day” was their response. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Well you are rather young looking – take it as a compliment” the person said in jest.
Next was the turn of another sales person who immediately asked me to “pay to join our teaching academy and we will come and train your teachers.” “I train them myself, why would I pay to have someone else to come in?” was my response. “Well, we have a high level of expertise. I’ve taught for over twenty years and am now a consultant.” “Are you assuming that I don’t then?”… Cue backtracking and fumbling over words.
I felt rather uncomfortable by these comments and opted to hide my identification beneath my jacket. I ushered myself to Tom Bennett’s talk before sliding out of the arena a little disheartened. I felt ashamed, but was it just me over thinking things, or was this as a result of covert discrimination?
If I’m honest, I do look young. I don’t help this fact by my super snazzy haircut and great fashion sense (I joke), but why should I try to look older than I am? I have in the past been known to grow a half beard (that’s all I can seem to manage), or I wear my glasses to help me appear older (I do have a sight impairment, but choose not to wear glasses ordinarily). Not sure what effect they had, but why should I feel that I have to do this?
There is quite rightly a lot of focus on other characteristics in order to ensure equality in the work place: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability etc, but age is a characteristic that is less likely to be overtly discriminated against. Perhaps this is because age and experience are often synonymous and experience is normally an essential on most job applications – which is ironic really, because the only way to get experience is by doing the job, or one very similar. Furthermore, what is considered ‘experienced’? Is there a checklist of number of years served or something else that I’m missing? Twenty years of doing the same thing does not equate to five years of continuous development in a role in my opinion, and I know which I would prefer to recruit.
I know of many senior leaders in primary and secondary that are below 40, yet in FE am aware of one. There are probably more, but it isn’t commonplace. Whilst age discrimination certainly appears rife for older teachers, there are many younger teachers that are also overlooked for progression in my opinion, particularly in FE and Skills. In response to a single tweet about ageism, I received 3 private messages all saying how they were undermined or discriminated against due to their younger age when interviewing for and/or fulfilling a senior position. In fairness, the FE and Skills workforce has an average age of 46, whereas the average age of school teachers between 35-39. This makes sense as FE teachers usually bring a vocational specialism into their college which requires them to have served some time in industry, but what about those that come in straight from University for example? Someone like me for instance who got their industry experience whilst studying for a degree and continued to work in industry whilst lecturing in the subject area. Why should this impact progression, or result in negative attitudes towards my age?
I am working in teacher training at 31 and am not aware of any other teacher trainers at this age, but believe there are many capable of it. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be in a position where I am valued for my ability and skill set, but this opportunity only came about through a series of fortunate events: In September 2014 I wrote an article under a pseudonym having been asked by the Guardian to respond to an Ofsted comment. Following many shares, one individual at a local University commented on the post. I revealed my identity to this individual and was invited for a chat about it. This led to me being invited as a key note speaker at their annual conference, where I spoke on the topic. In the audience sat my future line manager, who was impressed with my talk and contacted me at a later date with information about a role. Were it not for this, I would still be knocking at the door of teacher training. I had previously been for three interviews in teacher training and had been told on each occasion that although my credentials were impressive, I lacked the experience they wanted for the role. To paraphrase – I look about 14 and sticking me in front of a class of adults would be embarrassing for them… I got the message loud and clear.
So to end my ranting about ageism, I’d like to offer some advice to anyone reading that is wanting to progress in the FE and Skills sector – whether older or younger.
- Keep working hard to develop and someone will recognise your talent. There are people out there that see age as a mere number and nothing more.
- Don’t be ashamed of your age and challenge those who make reference to it. Just as someone should not comment on gender, ethnicity or sexual preference, nor should they age.
- If you feel discriminated against, you are protected under the Equality Act, so report it.
Perhaps you have a view on age and opportunity? Please comment if you do.