Taster menu of life

21st December 2012 at 00:00

When it comes to education, it's hard to escape your family's shadow. I should know: my decision to study English was largely down to my mother's yarns about her student days. On balance, I regret the choice. Listening to my lecturer spout yet another contrived theory, I quickly found it hard to see my degree as anything other than a justification of others' absurd career choices.

As such, I have observed my younger brother's university decisions with interest. For most of the past year his dilemma seemed to revolve around two polar opposites: would he follow my arts, crafts and unemployment route, or the lucrative, change-the-world, medical approach of our sister? Eventually though, the scales fell from his eyes and he chose his own path - he decided to study biology.

But what strikes me is the sheer number of options that neither he, our sister nor I ever considered, such as art history, PPE, engineering and optometry. Such choices reside on the a la carte menu of higher education, reserved for the discerning gourmet. In our family, we've never looked beyond the bog-standard lunchtime options (they have the best online discount vouchers).

The root of the problem is a lack of lived experience. I, like my brother, thought until recently that engineering involved wearing dungarees and eating chip butties. Meanwhile, those I know who have gone into similar areas tend to have a family connection, a successful example to follow. Thankfully, for Thrope Jnr, this wasn't a serious setback. Whatever the shortcomings of his decision-making process, my brother has been hugely lucky. Tragically, many are less fortunate.

I help out occasionally at a central London comprehensive, tutoring Year 11 intervention students in English. Their problem is not a lack of ability, more a casual indifference to education. Searching for motivation, I recently asked each of them what they wanted to do when they left school. Jonah, the cabal's leader, happily informed me that he was going to sell drugs. Half an hour (and a robust deconstruction of the poor socio-economic prospects that this choice offered) later, I still hadn't convinced him. Facts can educate but ultimately only people can inspire. Sadly, for Jonah success is defined not by education but by the cash he gets offered to pick up parcels for his "friends", no questions asked.

Independent schools often lease their pools, squash courts and table-tennis tables to their state counterparts to justify their "charitable" status. But here's a new idea: why don't they lend us their parents? I can see the lucrative television spin-off already: Parent Swap UK. For one week, Jonah gets to go home to a lawyer, a teacher or a doctor. He inherits a peer group with XXL aspirations and eats Jamie Oliver-inspired food. In short, he experiences the opportunities an education provides. Because, forget a la carte - as it stands Jonah will be lucky to order from the McDonald's Saver Menu of life.

This discrepancy in horizons makes our teachers all the more important. On any given day, my mum is an educationalist, a bureaucrat, a counsellor and everything in between. But the most important thing she can be is a role model, helping students to sample from foreign menus. Teach pupils to pass GCSEs and you'll push up the league tables for a day; show them the value of education and you'll whet their appetite for life.

Son of Thrope is a no good, beer-swilling recent graduate and son of Ms Anne Thrope, a secondary school teacher in the North of England. Ms Anne Thrope will return in January.

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