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Rewards of the retired volunteer
15 August 2003

Guangxi Zhuang Province: Jean Blakeman, 69, from Hampton in West London, is enjoying an unconventional retirement.

Having worked as the headmistress of a West London school for 24 years, a role she describes as a "24-hour job", Jean could have been forgiven for resting on her laurels and enjoying a peaceful retirement.

Instead, she has spent the last four years teaching English in China, through the Volunteer service overseas (VSO) programme.

Jean has found the experience highly enjoyable and rewarding.

"When I come back to the UK I feel like everything is chasing me. In China I have a job that satisfies me but I also have time: to read for pleasure, to shop, just to do my own thing," she says.

Teaching need

China's Guangxi Zhuang province, where Jean is working, faces an acute shortage of English teachers. All students wishing to go to university in China must pass an exam in English.

Yet in many of the poorer provinces, the quality of English teaching is poor, effectively barring some of the least well-off students from a university education.

Here, many students are the first in their families to receive a formal education, and they travel from as far as the Thai border to study at the college where Jean works.

Jean finds her students' perspective on age refreshing.

"They often say, 'Miss Jean, you've lived a long time so you can tell us these things'", she said

"The fact that I still refuse to dye my grey hair black is a source of constant frustration and amusement to them, but I think that they're used to the way I am now."

However, in April this year, Jean and other VSO workers were evacuated after the outbreak of the deadly Sars virus.


Jean was particularly sad to be leaving, as she was approaching the VSO retirement age of 70, which meant it was unlikely that she would be able to return.

"The idea of not being allowed to address my students as their teacher, despite knowing I was capable of doing so, took all the joy and purpose out of my life."

She wrote to VSO chief executive Mark Goldring to ask if there was anything that could be done.

Some countries do not allow older volunteers - for example, in Mongolia the maximum age is 45 - but in China they welcome retired help.

As a direct result of Jean's case, the VSO has raised its maximum retirement age to 75, which means Jean can now return to the job she loves.

"For me, VSO has been a bonus", says Jean. "As long as I still have something to give, and feel that I can help my students in their attempt to get better jobs and lives, then I want to go back."

by Julian Knight

BBC News Online personal finance and consumer affairs reporter