'Why must we blindly push university as the only route to success?'

For most students, university isn't the right route – so let's end all this academic snobbery, writes Richard Palmer

University decisions

The Blairite plan for most young adults to go to university was, is and always will be flawed. University is great, for those who wish to go down that route. If they do, and if they have the determination to gain the right skills to achieve a place, then it is the school’s job to make sure they get to where they want to go.

However, for many, (I may even stick my neck out and say perhaps the majority) this is not the right route. An apprenticeship, or going straight into work, or a vocational course or art school or drama college is probably better suited.

Why are governments, parents, heads, teachers and the pupils themselves blind to this?

All of these groups have something in common: they all exist in a society that values academic study above everything else. We talk of a two-tier system – one where everyone strives for an academic programme – and think that all other options are there for those who fail. The "also-rans". The potential increase in the number of places in grammar schools – academically selective education when all the evidence suggests all children do better in mixed-ability settings – simply adds to this fragmented educational landscape.

The bias towards university

It really does not need to be like this. Parents, teachers, and government need to redress their inner and underlying prejudices. At its crudest, some parents seem almost embarrassed that their child might not actually want to go to university. At best, this embarrassment is caused by their real concern for their child’s future. At worst, it could be caused by what family and friends might think.

At the heart of this debate is, I believe, how we define success. GCSEs, A levels, undergraduate degree, post-graduate degree, profession, salary, bonus, home-ownership and pension is pretty much what a large proportion of our society views as success. Indeed, at one time the government actually produced a league table of what subjects at school led to the highest salaries. The idea that success is based on financial gain is flawed. The idea that this "progress" has to be linear is equally flawed.

The time has come for us to be open-minded and open-hearted when advising our young people. We must not fall into the trap of doing what we do because it’s what everyone else does or what we’ve always done. I welcome the government’s review and I hope that, rather than a two-tier "academic" vs "non-academic" (and note here how the alternative options are described as ‘"non-") debate, we can genuinely see that all of these routes into the future are parallel and are to be walked with equal enthusiasm and pride.

I am not "anti-university" (in spite of being told by Michael Gove that I was "an enemy of aspiration" for saying that not everyone should strive for a university education. As an aside, he also said that he thought that everyone should be "above average", which I tried to point out is not statistically possible). I am anti-academic snobbery. I am as enthusiastic about university degrees as I am about apprenticeships, arts courses, drama school, vocational training and all other routes. I am enthusiastic and passionate about helping young people and their families understand that there are many doors to the future and that all are equally worthwhile, regardless of what society in general and sometimes those close to them believe, say or suggest.

Richard Palmer is the headteacher at St Christopher School in Hertfordshire

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