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When there is a shortage of headteachers, why is age - as opposed to experience - still considered an important criterion at interview, wonders Paul Ainsworth.

As the dust settles on Barack Obama's momentous election as US president, I still think that one of the most fascinating moments in the election was the appointment of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate and the sudden bounce that gave to his opinion rating. The following five days saw him move ahead of Obama in the polls, a fact which now seems a distant memory.

In September Sarah Palin had the potential to be the second most powerful person on the planet but my Saturday broadsheet decided to devote an article to achieving her look in the context of discussing one of the two appearance routes a woman can take in order to be taken seriously. Palin had chosen the 'Plain Jane' look - hair tied up and glasses. The journalist even claimed she was 90 per cent sure the spectacles contained clear glass.

As the election progressed, Palin began to slip out of the spotlight yet the press was still fascinated by her appearance. Indeed as was highlighted in a TES article, a Google search for 'Sarah Palin fashion' found more than six million articles whereas 'Sarah Palin foreign policy' brought up fewer than three million references.

'Too pretty'

You may think that this is just the world of politics and in these days of succession planning and a shortage of headteachers, schools are focused on finding the best person for the job. Unfortunately for those young teachers striving for rapid promotion, similar prejudices are likely to be met at interview.

While I was trying to become a senior manager in a secondary school, the interview feedback I received on a number of occasions, either directly to me or through more meandering routes included comments that I appeared "too young for the post". Interestingly my experience was never questioned.

I had already cultivated a look based on the most sober pinstripe suit I could find, complete with cricket ties and a shaven head, but one senior manager in all seriousness suggested I took that a stage further by growing a beard as this would make me look older! I wonder if it was any coincidence that I got my first senior manager post after the sleep deprivation treatment my son subjected me to for his first two years.

I recognise that it can be even more difficult for young women who wish to become senior leaders, especially in choosing the correct look for the job interview. The dilemma of being smartly conservative but not dowdy can be a difficult one to resolve. The choice of the correct shirt and tie is hard enough for me.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I have never been accused of being too pretty, though that was the feedback offered to a female colleague after attending an interview at one tough school. How that was supposed to help her in her aspiration to become an assistant head I can only guess. Goodness only knows what advice the senior manager in my interview would have given her.

Shameful discrimination

Admittedly in many staffrooms there is the traditional banter from both genders about the attributes they may be looking for from the new PE teacher but these comments tend to be very tongue-in-cheek.

The recent age discrimination laws make it unlawful to single someone out for being too young as well as too old, but I have yet to be convinced that this practice has died out. It does seem shameful in this current time of a shortage of leaders that we continue to discriminate against any individuals, however covertly, on the basis of youth or the wisdom of years. Instead we should be concentrating on finding the best leaders for our schools who really can make a difference to our pupils.

As I returned to thinking of the newspaper stories about dressing for success I could not help but wonder if the press would have been as positive about Carla Bruni's appearance if she'd been the French president rather than his wife. Or what those interview panels of governors would make of her as a prospective school leader.

Paul Ainsworth is deputy head of Belvoir High School and Community Centre in Nottinghamshire.

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