Proper place for realism

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Prince Charles was right. One should know one's place. Well, maybe that's putting it a bit too strongly. And in any case, he didn't exactly say that, did he?

Now, I would invite you to forget all the blather about the upcoming wedding. What we're dealing with here is what's really important about Charlie boy in the last few months: his pronouncements on state education.

You may recall that, back before Christmas, Charlie had a brief media spat with another Charlie - the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke. Charlie - the royal Charlie that is - made some comments about how schools were giving kids unrealistic expectations about the careers they might enjoy once they went out into the wide world. This then turned, with a little help from political Charlie, into an unseemly wrangle about deference, class and ideas above one's station.

Now that the caravan of royal reportage has moved on a stop or two, it might be worth asking if there really was anything of substance in what Prince Charles was saying. I for one think there might be.

Not, of course, in any of the stuff about place. One of the important things we do in FE is to help lift people out of one "place" and put them down in another, hopefully better, one. And it's good to see how many of the old constraints in this area have been lifted over the years. When I started teaching in the late Seventies, it was not uncommon to see bright female students reining in their ambitions because they didn't think there was a "place" for them among the high-earners. So, off they'd go to be secretaries rather than aspire to that chair on the other side of the desk.

Today, all that's gone. Almost all women expect to have careers that are just as fulfilling as men's - and still cope with marriage and babies along the way. Many of the old social class "blinkers" have been removed too, albeit that the class distinctions that caused them in the first place have not entirely faded away.

And while individual students will still underplay their own worth, they can often be shaken out of that with encouragement and exhortation. Again, one of the rewards of college teaching is to be there when a student who was always putting him or herself down - often because in the past they'd always had someone else to do it for them - finally gets it together and soars off into the educational stratosphere.

It's when it's the other way round - and this is where our royal Charlie comes in - that it starts to get tough as a teacher. You want your students to do well - all of them. You want them to fulfil their potential. But what happens when their potential is outstripped by their ambitions?

The Prince of Wales blamed schools for this phenomenon, although I suspect he knows as much about state schools as I do about particle physics. But wherever the fault lies, there are still students who have completely unrealistic ideas about what they're going to end up doing for the rest of their lives. Often this relates to a particular subject that has, for whatever reason, become flavour of the month. Ten years ago it was media studies. There is a lot more media about - TV, radio, magazines, the Internet - than there was.

But this growth has been far outstripped by the growth in number of media wannabes. And it is not easy sometimes to persuade a particularly persistent wannabe that just because some TV presenters are (a) female and (b) attractive, not every attractive young female will get to be one.

After media came law. For a while every second kid with a couple of GCSEs to rub together seemed to think they were going to be the next Rumpole. And while it's been good to see the end of the old white, male, middle-class stranglehold over the legal profession, that doesn't mean that just because you're from an ethnic minority, Judge John Deed is going to shuffle up and make room for you on his bench.

These days it is psychology that's packing them in. Speaking as someone who's never really done it himself, I can think of a number of good reasons for studying psychology for its own sake. There are, though, clearly going to continue to be more openings for carpenters and clerks than there are for forensic psychologists. My line when faced with would-be media moguls, high-flying barristers or crime-cracking Crackers is to point out how stiff the competition is, while recognising that someone still has to get the job.

With some students I am aware that that's a cop-out. Because whoever it is who puts in their thumb and pulls out the plum job, you know in your heart of hearts it ain't gonna be them.

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