Jettisoning the apartheid between job-related and academic learning is timely. In the future, as the birth rate falls, we won't be able to afford
disaffection, says David Hughes.
WHEN I was 14, by a process of mistaken identity (understandable given the popularity of my name in Wales) I had my one and only careers interview. I was ushered into a storage cupboard to meet the careers officer who attempted to shoe-horn the square peg of my ambitions into the round hole of local job opportunities. Had I considered welding - a regular reliable job with an apprenticeship attached? No. What about the Services? When these two areas drew a blank he, full of exasperation at my pickiness, asked me what I would like to do. I said I would like a job like his. "Are you taking the mick lad? Get out!" was his reply.
I went on to university and the implication was that I would not need careers advice. There would be a tailor-made job market for the graduate - which reflected educational standards rather than the needs of the economy or society. Underlying this attitude was the assumption that there were those who worked with their hands and those who worked with the brain, a "making" and a "thinking" economy serviced by two distinctly different education systems. It might be argued that in the comprehensive school the two systems were based in the same place. The makers and the thinkers would be filtered into the appropriate channels at the earliest opportunity. Twenty five years on, it is time to wake up and smell the future. From here on there will only be one economy - that of the thinkers - and schools need to wake up quickly to the new reality, recognise its threats and mobilise to seize the opportunities. Among the glitz of the job adverts which promote the "exciting opportunities to play a leading role in the educational challenges of the new millennium" there is a truth which still escapes many educational professionals. We cannot go on the way we have been.
We have had the false dawns, but we now stand at the threshold of a societal and educational revolution as profound as the development of mass literacy at the beginning of the industrial revolution.
The future curriculum will be dominated not by knowledge, for that will be freely accessible, downloaded and manipulated, but by the skilled application of knowledge to solve problems.
Key skills will be the common language of curriculum development. This movement should not be resisted by teachers as a dilution of educational standards, but embraced as a vehicle for sustainable improvement and partnership. This will enable departments within schools to plan, implement, monitor and evaluate around a common basis. No longer will scientists be able to go their own way based on the premise that science has a unique contribution to make to human knowledge. Nor will thy enter into futile debates as to whether they or the geographers own the tasty topics of plate tectonics.
Even more significantly, this links the school curriculum with national vocational qualifications and a language recognised by industry. For the first time, all post-16 education will be placed on a common footing. This gives the hope that the old educational apartheid of A-levels, tertiary education and "training" will disappear. They will be replaced by a lifelong commitment to appropriate educational access symbolised by the term "individual learning account" in which the state and the individual recognise a mutual interest in continued educational development.
"The quality of teaching and learning in the classroom" as the dominant mantra of the last generation of teachers and senior managers will be given a context in the real world. For the first time, there is a real opportunity to overwrite the educational hierarchy based on rationed access to higher education.
As a nation that will find its way in the world on the basis of a high-skilled economy, we cannot afford to abandon any individual as being beyond the reach of educational improvement. This is not just socially desirable, it is an economic imperative.
I have found it ironic that the most effective programmes for tackling student disaffection in schools is to use work-related placements to re-engage the interest and motivation of the student. We recognise that there is value in working in the "real" world but only in extreme situations, otherwise it can become disruptive to the delivery of the curriculum. In future, real learning opportunities will be built in partnership with industry and the centre for learning will be the community and not exclusively the school.
This does not suggest that education becomes the utilitarian slave of economics. As the birth rate continues to decline, the quality of the education received by our economically-active base assumes prime political and social importance. We cannot tolerate and cannot afford social disengagement, disaffection and educational failure because each individual child represents a larger proportion of our future well-being.
This is also the agenda that promotes lifelong learning. Consequently, it is incumbent on compulsory education not only to promote successful achievers at 16 but committed educational returnees throughout their economic and social careers.
Finally, if you think this does not concern you, consider who will be financing your pension and what remains of your entitlement to the welfare state in 20 years time. It will be your current students, and, as there will be fewer of them, each one of them will be that little bit more precious to the well-being of society.
David Hughes is a performance management consultant and a former deputy headteacher