Lee, a refreshing riposte to our exam-obsessed world

20th June 2008 at 01:00
He won! My favourite, my black-browed hero Lee McQueen is Sir Alan Sugar's chosen apprentice
He won! My favourite, my black-browed hero Lee McQueen is Sir Alan Sugar's chosen apprentice. Amid the usual assortment of ignorami, weasels and delusional self-esteem junkies, the lad shone out week after week as a beacon of rough-hewn sanity. Nearly all the others were either aggressive, grumbly, panicky or stupid. (Who can forget the team that, after years of multiculti education, thought a chicken became kosher if an imam blessed it?) The show was, as ever, hilarious viewing for the middle-aged, as Sir Alan and his wizened cronies set awful tasks for the young, then patronised them.

But Lee won. Rejoice. Full of barrow-boy energy, he was the sort of good-humoured salesman who makes you laugh as you sign up, the kind of team member who wants to win for the fun of shared victory. He never grassed up the others in the boardroom or bitched in the house ("A perfect gentleman," said one rival). After a tough and plainly dyslexic childhood, and a humiliating academic failure, he worked hard at a commission-only job and clearly yearned not for vapid telly fame - as too many do - but for the leap forward, and the business polish of working with the big boys. He'll be a joy, a merry Fauntleroy to Sugar's crusty Earl. Seeing his nervous terror of "presenting" in the final test, his muttered practice and brave final performance had some of us mums wiping away a furtive tear.

Oh, yes, and it's Lee who was caught out falsifying his CV. He used a vague chronology that suggested two years at Thames Valley University, when in fact he lasted only four months. He did not pretend to have graduated, just exaggerated how long he tried. Sir Alan seems unfazed, but several commentators have shaken their heads in pious horror, crying "cheat" and "liar".

Well - habitually pious as I am - I say phooey. It's plain as a pikestaff why the poor devil did it: he was embarrassed. He admits to feeling academically under par compared with his snooty peers with their half-arsed business degrees and poncey claims to be "business analysts". Lee clutched at the fig leaf of a university education to hide what he saw as his nakedness. His dyslexic spelling, his confusing "genre" with "gender" and his sense of educational inferiority did not make him aggressive - just a bit sheepish and all the more determined.

Salute Lee. He exists in every class, in every school in this benighted, tight-lipped, certificate-obsessed educational world of ours. He is the boy adrift, undeservedly belittled in a world where Edexcel can flaunt its hateful slogan "Success through qualifications" - not through knowledge or learning, just qualifications. He is the bright lad, the all-too-human bundle of energy whose ambition risks being crushed by the system. He plunged bravely into the university of life, and did well; but he knew that too many employers have no trust in their own judgement and cling to paper qualifications. So he cheated a bit, just as young girls stuff socks in their bras, because the world tells them that only big breasts will make you worthy of love.

He didn't even pretend to have the degree, just the two years' study. Which, ironically, would have benefited him far less than using those years to struggle and sell did. Lee may not have qualifications, but someone taught him something far more useful: resilience, ambition, cheerfulness, a desire to learn by doing, and a capacity to accept knockbacks.

So here's to all the fledgling Lees out there, frustrated by their inability to engage with the paper world but hungry as hell for a bite of the real one. Fair winds to them.

Libby Purves Author and presenter of 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4.

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