Yes, language skills, but can I mend the loo?

17th December 2010 at 00:00

If you're all keyed up about producing the perfect green-tea ice cream, or worried about the tempura prawns yet to prepare, switching to subjects such as presentation skills or correct grammar can seem like an irrelevant interruption. That's what the student admitted who had masterminded the excellent meal I'd just eaten.

Teaching language skills in a further education college very often means teaching those who'd rather be anywhere else than in your classroom - in the kitchen, the workshop, the studio. But, we tell them, language skills are vital.

Students on a traditional vocational course can be wary of being tested outside of their skill area, because that often means being tested where they are weakest. I would encourage them by admitting that, although I could write a decent grammatical sentence, I couldn't plaster a wall, fine tune an engine or display any of the skills they were building.

But should I get away with that admission? I am married to a man who is multi-skilled and has tried to teach me much of what he knows. "Look", he'll say with enthusiasm when fixing the toilet innards, "this is so simple, but so interesting." And he'll show me how the ballcock works. Again. "No", I'll say, returning to my slim volume of poetry, "it's not interesting, really it's not."

I know if we were marooned on a desert island, he would have a three- bedroom house, complete with plumbing, up and running in a couple of weeks. He's a bit like Harrison Ford in the castaway film Mosquito Coast, but without the tan, the fame or the money. And me - well, I suppose I would be under a palm tree reading poetry.

I watched a bright student wrap a parcel with brown paper, sticky tape and string. The simple statement belies the effort: how much went wrong, how much sticky tape stuck to his hair, the way he hacked off the wrong end of the string, the way the parcel defiantly unfurled and his ultimate dismay. Academic students can display an alarming inability to function on a practical level. Certainly they can produce an essay, or design a web page. But sometimes their tales of living in a flat with friends made me fear for their safety and survival. And we're talking about the dangers of heating up a tin of spaghetti hoops here, not rejigging the central heating system.

But, we argue, looking up from our volume of poetry, we don't need to be practical. We can read. We're smart. We can check the internet for instructions if we need to fix things. Or, more probably, we can scour the yellow pages and find someone who can. But, secretly, we are a bit uneasy. We see that for those who desperately want to learn a trade, apprenticeship opportunities in the traditional skills are shrinking. And we see too many students wanting to be film directors rather than electricians. Finding someone who can isn't always so easy.

Traditional vocational courses demand high standards in language skills, but we rarely turn that on its head. We need business studies bright sparks, and musicians, and people who write poetry. But we also need someone who knows how to fix the loo when it overflows.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer.

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