I had waited since lunchtime for my favourite tradesman, whose progress I have followed from youth to established businessman. Not being one to disappoint a client, he arrived late with the weariness of someone with more work than time and an apprentice whose expertise on computers is reportedly phenomenal. The technical explanation of what needed to be done was lost on me so he settled for the simple explanation: water finds its own level, you see, sir. He was more welcome to me than a thousand university graduates.
This reminded me of an occasion when I explained to a Rotary Club the new Standard grade courses for which I was responsible as a chief inspector. I was asked why nothing was being done to increase the numbers going into apprenticeships as there was a crisis in the availability of trades across Scotland. Any householder knows how true that is. If the purposes of education include leading young people to certain and worthwhile work, to meet the skills needs of our communities and to encourage the creation of businesses, the push to university irrespective of destination is not the answer.
In the early 1980s, statutory school education had reached the limit of its effectiveness in most western countries. It was not meeting economic needs or justifying its resources. The problem was in part that formal qualifications were only available to those who stayed to the bitter end and were pitched at a level which led the majority to get out as soon as they could. This became unsustainable.
Raising the leaving age kept youngsters out of the job market but presented the education system with the challenge of finding them something useful to do in their extended school life. Introducing comprehensives had removed the vocational element of junior secondaries. The jobs many had gone to at 16 were drying up because of the recession and advanced technology, so they had to be equipped with different skills. Public expectations of the education system had accelerated beyond what was being delivered.
The policy answer to these challenges was worthy enough and politically attractive. Courses would be developed to give leaving qualifications for all rather than the few and pressure would be put on the system to maximise the number of students going on to further or higher education, thus further delaying their entry into the job market. This policy raised the numbers improving their qualifications and led to more university degrees, but it was all about gaining formal qualifications of a fairly limited kind, many of which had no obvious vocational route.
The landscape created by this "one size fits all" policy has had a negative effect. There is a dearth of businesses supplying household needs. These jobs require sophisticated technical and personal skills, an ability to make decisions, to work unsupervised and to handle the complications of business management. They can also be rewarding in terms of job satisfaction and life style. But these skills are not acquired by going down the university route as if it were all that education is about. The alternative route still challenges schools to deliver to these trades well-rounded young people with a broad education and substantial skills.
That is also sound educational practice.
Many will have shared my experience of working with people who have been persuaded to go for advanced degrees and find themselves in low-level, unsatisfying jobs. For them this national push was the wrong route.
Many shed their weariness when they talk about their hobbies and out-of-work pursuits and profess abilities as authors, cartoonists, embroiderers, all skills which the push to maximise formal qualifications reduced to lesser status. In some European countries the statutory system would have included these interests as, for example, in Germany, with its linking of academic and practical studies throughout the learning process.
A glance at appointment columns shows qualifications being asked for well above the level of the job on offer. In all walks of life we see people with degrees where previously none were necessary and where they are still not essential for the content of the job. When you take into account that many of these jobs have been eased in demand by the introduction of modern technology, there is a real gap between qualifications and challenge.
It is one thing to have a broadly educated population but it is another to quantify that in terms of advanced qualifications if these are irrelevant to the work being done or the jobs available. Down that route lies disillusionment with education as experienced by many current graduates when they find that they need a second qualification before they are actually employable.
There are government policies now which recognise that many business opportunities are being lost through the drift away from apprenticeships and the over-emphasis on university education. One of the finest occasions I have attended was a lunch at which awards were given to youngsters who had completed modern apprenticeships. They had received a broad school education and then demonstrated success in the complex challenges of their apprenticeships. They were fulfilled and looking forward to rewarding job opportunities. They understood the relevance of learning to living.
Modern apprenticeships should be recommended to a much broader segment of the school population and schools should be more active in promoting them.
They are for the 16-24 age group, offer training to relevant qualifications in a wide range of occupations and incorporate core skills leading on from school experience.
The seven most popular specialisms are construction, customer services, business administration, motor vehicles, engineering, electrotechnical and hospitality. But there are many others which would lead to a better supply of the local skills which are so lacking. The number of modern apprentices has risen but the percentage going straight from school has fallen.
That would suggest young people come back to the idea later or are not properly informed at the time of leaving school. It would be worth reversing this trend. There is a need to match the purposes of education to economic and social needs.
Douglas Osler is former senior chief inspector of education.