Swing pendulum round to plumbing

13th December 2002 at 00:00
One of the greatest annoyances in life is phoning for a plumber and having to listen to each one repeating in tones of genuine regret: "But I can't take on any more work."

Right now they hold all the cards - we can fume as much as we like about our plumbing afflictions, but at the moment, even a fairly mediocre plumber gets a walk-on part in a bathroom drama.

It's not only plumbers who seem to have fallen into a black hole, but all tradesmen. You wait ages to employ one and then you have to play by their rules. We can't stamp our feet when they say that they will be here today, gone tomorrow and may be back for a couple of hours next Friday. Through gritted teeth we promise an endless supply of coffee and perhaps even provide meals.

But I do digress. Such is the scale of the problem that I've got too many thoughts for the words allocated. I must, however, commend Govan High for engaging in what I can only describe as a most remarkable and long-sighted exercise. Courses in the construction industry are offered to pupils with the subsequent possibility of joining an apprenticeship scheme. With the construction industry in Scotland projected to have 27,000 vacancies by 2005, it makes perfect sense to consider that higher education is not for everyone.

This is why I admire Govan High. In tackling this vexing problem they are, of course, likely to attract some adverse criticism. Some will feel they are returning to the bad old days of academic versus practical education. Others, misguidedly, think that entering a trade is not as worthy as going to university. In certain sections of society there may even be a social stigma attached to apprenticeships. This is ridiculous.

If anything should be stigmatised, it is scraping together two C passes at Higher, going to some sort of university establishment, coming out with a degree in media studies and never getting a relevant job.

The current approach is failing miserably. Recent statistics revealed an 8 per cent increase in Scottish school-leavers who have no qualifications at all. These young people are not fit for the job market. Businesses are tearing their hair out because 15 to16-year-olds do not understand the importance of punctuality and are strangers to the concept of being polite to the boss.

An Elgin businessman told me in horror how one work experience person used terms such as "it was a good skive" when he wrote up his report on his week in the real world. It is worth noting that this employer is no old fogey but a man of 23 who asserts very strongly that he sees a substantial decline in standards since he left school.

The worst thing about all of this is that we are shameless about the way we do not value practical skills. Mediocrity on a huge scale in schools, not a plumber to be seen and we think that's OK. If you want evidence, look at Jamie's Kitchen, a compelling Channel 4 documentary series showing chef Jamie Oliver's attempts to train a troop of no-hope unmotivated layabouts to be as professional as he is. But most of them can't do professional, and you sense Jamie's frustration as his expectations collapse. Teachers understand that only too well.

So Govan High, congratulations on your initiative. I am certain many other schools will learn from you. Imagine a world which values a career in the construction industry as highly as any other livelihood. There would be a resultant increase in our lowly productivity. So we must win the arguments, swing the pendulum round. Personally, there's no contest: having a plumber on tap is just what the doctor orders.

Marj Adams teaches religious education, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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