Top head: 'My own children have rejected university'

It's a shame more families aren't looking beyond the university route for their children, says headteacher Gwen Byrom

Headteacher Gwen Byrom was happy that her children chose alternatives to university

As a parent, you are always going to feel as though you’re getting things wrong. From the moment that small person is handed to you, there is an acceptance that there will be countless times when you will feel helpless, out of your depth and a failure.

Over the past 21 years, I have managed (with my very patient husband) to raise five children, so I can say with a degree of confidence that I am now comfortable with the rollercoaster of feelings that parenthood brings. There are some areas where I know I am not the expert: for, example, if one of my children is ill, or is in any trouble, I would seek advice and not feel in the slightest bit guilty about doing so. 

There is one field, however, where I am perhaps justified in believing that this isn’t necessary. I’m a time-served educator and have had thousands of students pass through my care over the past 23 years, so I should be able to help my kids navigate this area of their lives without much trouble, right?  Wrong, in the eyes of some, anyway.

Four of my children are at the stage of taking their GCSEs or have already passed that milestone. Of the four of them, only one has taken A levels and is studying at university. The other three have chosen to leave formal schooling and enter the world of work and apprenticeships. This is their choice – they all have/will have multiple GCSEs mainly at grades B/6 and above. There is every reason to expect that they would be able to secure good A-level grades and find a suitable degree to pursue at university. Yet they have turned their backs on this route.

A levels and university isn't the only option

Don’t get me wrong: I do not regret or mourn their choices, which have been made carefully and with a substantial amount of discussion. What I do have a problem with is the attitude of others towards this decision. The discussions tend to start with my husband first. “Are you OK with that?” is the first question, followed by “And is Gwen OK with that”?  Given that he is and I am, the conversation tends to be pretty brief.

It does make me wonder, though, how many young people and families have remained on the treadmill of A levels and university because it is continually perceived to be the default and “best” route for anyone with the capability to do so? As with most things, I blame politicians for this. 

In 1999, Tony Blair expressed the desire that 50 per cent of young people would go to university by the year 2010. This target has been reached or thereabouts. But at what cost? There are regularly repeated calls in the press for the abolition of so-called Mickey Mouse degrees, and outrage is expressed when students achieving low A-level grades are admitted to university and subsequently do very well (how dare they?). 

I believe that this call to send half our 18-year-olds into university was a huge mistake. Not because I want to maintain an elite but because I feel that the move has devalued all of the routes into the world of work and has left young people and their parents fearful of making a “wrong” (for which read “different”) choice. Universities and young people suffer because the market becomes swamped with graduates – we’ve all read the stories of baristas with BAs.  Apprenticeships and other routes also suffer because if you can go to university, why don’t you?

'The forgotten third'

The many and valuable post-16 choices that do exist are perceived as a dumping ground for “the forgotten third” – those who do not achieve passes in GCSE English and maths.  This vicious circle means that children and families making a decision about the route to follow could feel that there is no right choice other than the gold standard of the A-level/degree route.

This is compounded by the fact that we, as educators, have pursued that route and often have little or no experience of the alternatives. We can talk with confidence about the benefits of a university education, but our understanding of other options, gained from direct experience, is far sketchier. Children pick up on that and this all feeds into the feeling that these choices are second best.  After all, the successful, well-paid people they see the most of every day (and, yes, you may be cynical but I do mean us) are all university graduates, so surely that must be the best route?

I vividly recall conversations with students and their families who, at the end of year 11, halfway through Year 12 or in Year 13, approached school to say they were considering leaving for work-based training. In all cases, the sense of embarrassment and failure in those meetings was palpable, as was the relief when we were able to say: “It’s OK, if it’s right for you, it’s the right thing to do.” 

For my own part, I am proud of my kids’ ability to think through the options open to them and make a choice that works for them rather than sleepwalking into a decision. I hope that they in future will be able to talk with confidence to other young people about the benefits they gained from taking the route they chose. 

I don’t have a quick or system-wide solution to the current dilemma regarding post-16 education. I wish I did. I do, however, think it’s up to us in schools to make sure that every family gets clear advice and support as they approach key points from people who have taken the routes they can consider. I think, too, that we need to take steps to celebrate every career path equally. No choice a young person makes is in itself a failure and nobody should make them or their parents feel that it is.

Gwen Byrom is a headteacher and was president of the Girls’ School Association in 2018

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