And Sugar said let there be dosh

12th May 2006 at 01:00
By now we will know the outcome. After 12 gruelling weeks (almost as gruelling for viewers) and the rumbustious humiliation of 13 wannabes, Sir Alan Sugar's apprentice will be either the feisty, aggressive Ruth Badger, or the willowy and enigmatic Michelle. In rapid succession, Sir Alan has flung to the wolves such unforgettable characters as slippery Sayed, Annoying Scottish Woman, lovely Ansell, bumptious Paul, mad Jo and Public-School Git.

Apologies if you have not been following the BBC2 series. I have been addicted -though competitive "reality" television normally sends me screaming from the room - and during these three exhausting months I have heard it discussed with clammy excitement at such diverse venues as a kebab shop on the Old Kent Road, a Cambridge high table and numerous black cabs.

I suppose we all want to know how big-time tycoons work; and we all enjoy seeing young people with an excess of self-esteem fouling up in embarrassing tasks like bargaining for squishy melons or trying to sell hatstands to contemptuous retail buyers. On my own one week, I had to drive round to my brother's to watch because you need someone there when you shout "No! Nooo!" and cover your eyes as the latest disaster unfolds.

We also love watching Sir Alan Sugar: just as you are thinking "phsa, to hell with the pompous old bully", he suddenly frowns in even more intense concentration and pounces brilliantly on some giveaway phrase or nonsensical action; whereon you realise that he is, in fact, probably God.

A judgemental, Old Testament God, obviously: the sort who cuts through all the management-school HND jargon about "convergent phases" and roars, "You pissed my money up the wall, sure as I've got a hole in my arse!

Whatd'ya mean, you're the best - you lost, din't you?"

Anyway, here we are at the grand final playoff - Badger vs Ice-maiden - and I have to say that for us TES readers, educators and idealists as we are, and for a government fixated on measuring education, it offers some sobering conclusions. Both these young women are in their way splendid - indeed the last few in the contest were all pretty impressive. Yet as the group grew smaller, the apprentices grew noticeably less - er - cultured. The standard of general knowledge, wider reference and English grammar noticeably weakened.

In the antepenultimate episode, the reward for the winning team was a trip to Rome. Paul - a semi-finalist who had just won by organising a Latino dance competition - summed up the eternal city to his friend with a cry of, "Wo, there's the Coliseum! - an - an there's - er - there's all SHIT there, man!"

He was beaten by two women, competent and already successful in such arcana as "offshoring" and "operations", who have yet to speak a fully grammatical sentence each. As Ruth observed to Michelle in the taxi last week, "We 'aven't got five GCSEs between us." Michelle, who brilliantly rose from checkout girl from a difficult home to earning pound;100,000 a year at 30, had to lie about her A-C grades to land her first job.

So what are we all doing, fretting over decent grammar and wide vocabulary and exam grades, when it appears that real wealth-creators, movers and shakers are better off without any of it? They win by hurling themselves into the fray armed with minimal vocabularies, no grammar and little interest in anything but top money. And it seems to work.

It reminds me of the headmasterly saying attributed to an Abbot of Ampleforth. Asked what happened to the boys who didn't make it to university, he replied, "We rely on them to employ the ones who do." I think of that whenever I see Sir Alan questioning his suave, white-haired senior aides.

Perhaps we should resign ourselves to the fact that all the kids in our charge really need is basic literacy (wiv no frills, innit) and an ability to work a calculator and bash through IT systems. If they've got the killer instinct they'll make it, and if not they probably won't anyway. Not unless they do a vocational training in something useful like engineering.

Perhaps the conclusion (a cheering one!) is actually that the purpose of education never was just to fit brats for the workplace, but to engage and console their hearts with the beauties of knowledge, nature, science, language and art. Perhaps the best bits of education always were useless.

I could be wrong. Maybe by now Ruth or Michelle will have amazed us all by sloughing off the Sir Alan manner and greeting victory with a graceful quotation from Cowper or an allusion to the Aeneid.

Not holding my breath. . .

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