How not to go to university

29th April 2005 at 01:00
I was hanging out at the City and Guilds the other day, chatting about the woeful fact that not enough people realise that it is good, not bad, when a kid decides to do a solid vocational training instead of racking up debt on a fifth-rate degree. And one observation from an old-stager pulled me up short. It is, he says, partly the fault of careers teachers. They don't know enough about vocational courses, and they don't push them enough.

But as he said it, an awful suspicion came over me, which maybe I should not have expressed. If it is true about careers teachers - and I have not studied the subject - there might be a hidden and disquieting reason. Let me throw it out to professionals for consideration. Could it be, could it possibly be, that some careers teachers with aspirational heads and pushy parents on their backs actually don't dare to promote the idea that it might be interesting to avoid university and learn a skill?

Maybe they see a danger in revealing to restive, pallid 16-year-olds that you can do a course in boatbuilding or photography, electrical engineering or embroidery, pottery or silversmithing or nightclub bouncing (yes indeedy, City and Guilds accredits a door supervisor course, do look it up.

It's not as long and taxing as some, but it's there).

Perhaps the careers teacher shoves all these entrancing options to the bottom of the heap because he or she has an awful suspicion that if such delightful life-skills were openly on offer, they would not be taken up solely by the "non-academic' cadre.

There might be a lemming-like stampede of children marked down as potential academic high-flyers, thrilled at the idea of doing something that involves less writing and more handling of real-world stuff.

It could happen. I remember only too well how my own sixth-form friends used physically to drag me past the Army Careers Office, whimpering and pawing the air, simply because after an overdose of gerundives and the Thirty Years War I could imagine nothing nicer than learning to grease a gun or put down smoke or march around in the lovely fresh air.

It wasn't patriotism, just the idea of a containable, masterable skill or two. Of course, being a girls' school they sometimes mentioned nursing to us, but no sooner had I become excited about learning bandage-rolling and plastering than someone would say: "Of course, there's a lot of academic studying in modern nursing", and I would be turned off again.

At least my school taught compulsory needlework. Today things have gone further, and we ought to recognise that in the way education is now structured, there is a powerful risk of not only alienating the non-academic kids, but of wearing out the patience and the natural joyfulness of the academic ones.

Why else do they all take off on gap years, strapping rucksacks to their weedy, underexercised backs and leaving their books on the bedroom floor? Why do even the most apparently talented English A-level students stubbornly resist reading classic novels which are not "set"? They are sickened, literally: they are in ketosis on an Atkins diet of the mind, overfed with rich cerebral protein, yearning for the fibre and honest bread of practicality. Even school technology gets less and less practical and more and more about folders; cookery has mutated into food-tech and woodwork into resistant materials. You don't even get to cut up pickled dogfish any more in biology. OK, it was disgusting, and the only thing I can remember 40 years on is the smell, but I do remember looking forward to it as a delightfully practical change from Dictee and the Diet of Worms.

Maybe the answer is that just as every schoolchild should do a sport, so each should do a practical skill. Tapestry, or bicycle maintenance, or bricklaying. That way, people like me would be reminded that they are in fact lousy at sewing and seriously bad with a screwdriver, and we would return with renewed vigour to shovelling words and ideas around because that is our only talent. Meanwhile, others would discover that they are gifted, and bombard the careers teacher with requests about how to take this talent further.

Whereupon the teacher could artfully point out that they might even run their own fashion house or garage, if they'd just settle down and learn to write a literate sentence and grasp the concept of percentages.

So academic basics would benefit, too. And you could cancel a few citizenship classes, because they'd all have learned the basic principle that everyone counts and everyone can contribute. Some would learn it by succeeding with the needle or the trowel, others by failing ignominiously (as I did) and learning a bit of respect for those who are handier.


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