Last reviewed 3 December 2012

2012 is the European Year for Active Ageing — nothing to do with schools, we may think. But bringing the generations together is an important part of strengthening communities. Here Maureen Moody discusses the value of engaging children and older people in common activities, and suggests some ways of doing this for the benefit of all parties.

Why engage the generations?

Teaching professionals today are fully aware of the diverse nature of our society. The student body, the staff team, the local community and the whole country feature a rich mix of nationalities, ethnic groups, religions and cultures. Gender is not allowed to become a dividing factor, disability is supported and homophobia is challenged. In general, schools today do a great job of ensuring inclusiveness and of celebrating difference.

However, an aspect of diversity that may easily escape notice is age. In most schools children and young people do not come into contact with older people.

Does this matter? Yes, it does. The world, and especially technology, moves on and changes so swiftly today that, to children and young people, those members of the community who are retired can seem incredibly out-of-date, out-of-touch and irrelevant. People with grey hair, dressed in what seem to be hopelessly old-fashioned clothes, are either invisible to many under-18s, or appear to be continually disapproving and critical.

At the same time, young people frequently have a bad press in this country, many older people believing the worst of them without actually coming into contact with any of them.

For the generations to mix in a community always used to be natural and beneficial; just as the grandchild/grandparent relationship is valuable and enjoyable, so the generations within a community can benefit from being involved in each other’s lives. Younger and older people can help each other, learn from each other, and form valuable friendships.

So how can schools make contact with older people, involve them in school life and involve students in older people’s lives?

The generations@school competition

The Solidarity between Generations scheme was initiated by the European Commission. The aim is to recognise the contribution elderly people make to society, and generate better intergenerational understanding. Within the scheme, the generations@school project is focusing on bringing together school pupils and elderly people so they can collaborate in improving education and enhancing everyone’s lives.

The generations@school website includes advice for schools on setting up intergenerational projects and bringing older people into school. These could include:

  • helping children draw family trees

  • looking together at the likely future

  • questionnaires for elderly visitors

  • story-reading

  • involvement in history lessons

  • after-school art, drama, sculpture, photography, etc workshops.

Help with technology

A key area where the young can help the elderly is in communications technology. At Durrington High School in Worthing, students from all year groups have been working on a one-to-one basis with older people in the local community, teaching them how to use computers, the Internet and mobile phones. Part of a project called Silver Surfers, it is aimed at helping older people improve their skills and independence, but has had the side effect of getting the generations together, talking, laughing and sharing experiences. Funding to hold the courses was given to the school by the Neighbourhood Learning for Deprived Communities.

Dining at school

Eating together is a sociable experience. Many older people do not bother to cook for themselves, but schools have found that if they invite the elderly to lunch the result is an enjoyable mixing of the ages. St Peter’s CE Primary School near Nottingham was a catalyst for Jamie Oliver’s “School Dinners” campaign, and children there are now immersed in a healthy eating culture. But the other benefit of the focus on food at St Peter’s is that the children now regularly eat once a week with older people from their community.

Exam invigilators

Retired and semi-retired professional and business people are helping many schools with exam invigilation. Local advertising or word of mouth searches will identify a good choice of candidates who have the necessary skills to take responsibility for the exam room when needed. Look for people who have backgrounds, experiences and skills, such as:

  • middle/senior management, or supervisory background

  • experience in the education sector

  • good judgment

  • good communication and decision-making skills

  • an air of personal authority.

Careers advice

In years 9–11, careers days or careers talks can be very helpful to students, but there is no need to limit participants to younger and middle-aged adults. Typically, the school may be holding a careers day where groups of students circulate among adults who tell them about their own occupations. It is not the age of the adult that matters. What is important is featuring as wide a range of careers as possible, and choosing people who are personable, interesting and able to hold students’ attention. This includes recently retired people and those over any traditional retirement age who are still working. And the added benefit of enabling students to meet and talk with adults if different ages is a clear inclusive message about age, work and value.

The same is true of careers talks. If students receive, say, 10 talks over the period of a term, there is plenty of opportunity to provide diversity by way of gender, ethnicity and age, as well as a range of occupations.

Teaching assistants

By the same token, there is no reason why classroom assistants should be young or middle aged. Older people are just as likely to have the skills and personal qualities needed. In addition, they may be able to offer the patience, understanding, life experience and aura of calm that often come with age. Remember also the availability and willingness of older people to be involved in breakfast clubs and after-school activities.

Who to contact

Teachers may welcome some of the ideas discussed here, but it may not seem obvious how to contact older people within the community. Consider contacting local organisations such as the following.

  • Local University of the 3rd Age Group

  • Women’s Institutes

  • Townswomen’s Guilds

  • Rotary clubs

  • Over–60s clubs (also called Evergreen, Friendship, etc clubs)

  • Church groups

  • Disability groups.

Share any ideas about bringing the generations together with the school’s parent association, and remember that pupils’ grandparents, other older relatives and neighbours may be delighted to join in and help organise events.