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Train of thought

Brian Taylor | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Here’s a question. How best to help those youngsters who fail to gain much from their education up to the current compulsory age of 16?

How best to help them - both in their interests and in the wider community interest? That wider interest being both the plus side of fostering a productive contribution to the economy - and the absence of a negative, that they require benefits and may drift into disorder.

An enormously challenging question. And one which is about to be tested with two competing models, north and south of the border.

Gordon Brown is particularly dedicated to this question. He believes, passionately, that Britain must “skill up” to meet the challenge of the new economy.

His argument is that unskilled labour will be required less and less. What will be needed is a skilled, trained workforce.

Hence the review into skills, commissioned by the Treasury and conducted by Sandy Leitch, the Scot who formerly headed Zurich Financial Services.

Hence today’s bill in the Queen’s Speech which will, by 2015, require all 16 to 18-year-olds to stay in some form of education or training. There will be concomitant duties on employers and parents to ensure compliance.

A similar measure was advanced by Jack McConnell for Scotland - and argued with comparable passion. Indeed, Mr McConnell says his biggest regret is that he will not now be able to introduce such a provision.

That is, of course, because Mr McC lost. Alex Salmond is now the first minister. And he does not agree with the compulsory element of the Queen’s Speech measure - which only applies to England and Wales.

Towards the end of September, Mr Salmond’s Scottish Government set out their own skills strategy. The aim is to encourage and support - but not to oblige.

Today’s measure for England and Wales has - wrongly - been described as raising the school leaving age. That is incorrect because it will be possible to meet the new obligation in other ways, for example by undertaking certificated training while in employment.

However, Mr Salmond and his ministers dissent from the principle. Under devolution their scheme will, of course, apply in Scotland.

We will be able to compare and contrast.


  • 1.
  • At 01:45 PM on 06 Nov 2007,
  • Peter, Fife wrote:

If we are to produce a balanced workforce from our schools and colleges we require training to be commensurate with those ideals; there is no point promoting the principle that everyone should get the chance to go to university when the reality is that only 30% of students are capable of completing courses in the serious subjects to be studied in the further and higher education processes.

Pupils who have limited abilities should not be forced into categories of an education system, where because of their shortcomings they will become the obvious targets for bullies; all pupils should be treated as individuals subsequently each should be educated at a level commensurate with their abilities.

It will not be music in the ears of some of our educationalists but some pupils will never progress beyond becoming capable of lifting heavy things; one fact is indisputable industry require individuals who can lift heavy things.

I believe proposals of targeted education has in the past failed to impress teacher’s associations; teachers are employed to teach subjects which are deemed fitting to produce adequate skills for employment, not to decide on which subjects should be taught.

During the sixties we had High Schools and Secondary Modern Schools; pupils were streamed and a balance of sorts was produced, the education system of that era produced adequate graduates, teachers, managers, tradesmen, non craft personnel, etc.

All such methods of pupil streaming have currently gained a prohibition status, mainly from politicians, educationalists and the PC Brigade, they demand that all children are treated equally and have an equal chance of success; today all those ‘secondary’ schools have been re-designated High Schools, all teaching the same curriculum irrespective of regional or pupil capabilities; we need a reality check, all pupils are not equal!

What we require is a tiered level of education; there must be a reintroduction of vocational studies, if nothing else to let pupils get their hands dirty in work related routines, equally teachers must be honest with pupils based on their displayed abilities, they will not all become managers.

At the other end of the scale there is little point in turning out graduates in flower arranging to pack the shelves in our local supermarkets; ultimately the quality of the pupil should be the governing factor; you will never make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear no matter how much money you throw at the problem.

Much of the disruption in class and in school in general is the cover created by struggling pupils to cover their inadequacies, it is clear that even these pupils can recognise their own failings through self assessment; whatever we do we must not allow any level of education to become comfort zones, the upper level of each category must be such that all pupils in all classes are challenged.

A possible plus side will be an increase in the numbers of those in apprenticeships, although I must comment that in my opinion the product of ‘modern apprenticeships’ are more likely to be Jack of all Trades, Masters of None.

"Gordon Brown is particularly dedicated to this question. He believes, passionately, that Britain must “skill up” to meet the challenge of the new economy."

Mr Brown may be right, but he's unfailingly wrong in his approach. Yes more skills may be required, but there will always be an unskilled element.

Successive governments seem to have been intent on raising individuals expectations and raising aspirations. There is however, a real issue when aspirations cannot be met and individuals then believe [wrongly] that unskilled work is beneath them.

Presumabely the rapid growth economies of the east are based largely on a low-skilled workforce, meanwhile we languish in a state of complacency whereby not only can we no longer manufacture many of our own goods, but we couldn't staff it if we wanted to as we are being raised under the illusion that our aspirations can be met.

Upskill if there is the need for the skill by all means, but don't force it on the people in some kind of arbitrary manner ... to do so is an affront to the individuals who will succeed perfectly well in low or unskilled work.

I have struggled in the past to fill unskilled production positions, in part (I think) due to a perception of what unskilled work is all about, that it doesn't meet individuals aspirations ... we can't all be Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, et al.

It's another example of how detached our government in westminster has become. It's as bad as Cameron and "everyone can get a bus to work", only there aren't any buses!

  • 3.
  • At 09:48 AM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • Graeme wrote:

Post 1, Peter in Fife. I am a Teacher (Computer Science) and you have hit the nail right on the head for me. I have to teach this subject to all students in my school (overseas) and many students cant access the work. Id love to do more vocational work (like building a computer for example) but find all my time taken up teaching prescribed courses that dont meet all the needs of the students. Schools are results driven environments these days and thats the bottom line.

We dont teach skills kids need, we teach what exam boards think they need and we use a one size fits all policy to do it.

I agree with you peter, vocation, vocation vocation.

  • 4.
  • At 11:22 AM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • Robbie wrote:


You write:

"Presumably the rapid growth economies of the east are based largely on a low-skilled workforce, meanwhile we languish in a state of complacency whereby not only can we no longer manufacture many of our own goods, but we couldn't staff it if we wanted to as we are being raised under the illusion that our aspirations can be met".

While I agree with the main part of your argument - that we need people to know unskilled work matters too.

You can not compare our economy to those in the Far East. China and India rely on an unskilled workforce producing a cheap product. Their economies are booming but if they want to make individuals wealthy then they will have to increase the value of their products - this requires upskilling.

If we want to increase our national wealth in a global economy, the way to do so is to have a specialist work force providing services in areas that others are able to compete in.

We cannot compete with Asia on price so we must compete on skills.

  • 5.
  • At 01:29 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • RC wrote:

Very good comment, #1. Although I would like to propose something a little more radical. Instead of the government's proposed forced vocational training from 16-18, how about making it 14-16? Many children who are not very academic are absolutely bored witless by Standard Grade level and gain next to nothing from those two years. Why not start the vocational training earlier, and have them ready to enter the workforce by the present compulsory age of 16?


Robbie - "You can not compare our economy to those in the Far East"

I agree with that, it's an obvious statement of fact. The main thrust of my somewhat inarticulate comment is really that our own economy is being squeezed by such economies and the policies of 'aspiration' further undermine our ability to compete.

As much as our government [westminster] would like us to believe that we are better off with a narrower upskilled workforce, it belies the truth. We're not better off; as costs go up in those economies we currently depend on for our manufacturing needs our own economy will suffer.

We need to be more self-sufficient in many areas. Raising individuals work aspirations is only part of the story individuals and families have had there aspirations raised in all areas of life and work. we have become the ultimate consumer society, highly dependent on those nations which are not as 'developed' as we are, the ultimate folly is that it is unsustainable.

Upskilling and/or enforced education simply feeds into this unsustainable societal model. Every member of the society is essential, even those who can only 'lift heavy things' as post 1 discusses.

School is a prison to which people are sent to punish them for being young.

That may be an extreme view - but there's truth in it. Or, to put it differently, schools are holding pens to contain children whilst their parents engage in economic activity.

Children want to learn - but they want to learn the things that interest and excite them at the time and the stages in their lives that those things excite them. You cannot teach all - or even most - children through a formalised, standardised 'education' system.

Brown's 'big idea' is just more of the same old same old, and will only succeed in further damaging and alienating the substantial proportion of children whom the present system already damages and alienates.

The problem - the heart of the problem - is that education systems are designed as if the parents were the consumers. They aren't. The children are the consumers. If the education that children are offered does not engage and excite them so much that they go eagerly to their studies, then it has failed utterly.

Compulsion is no solution.

  • 8.
  • At 02:59 PM on 11 Nov 2007,
  • Stephen wrote:

hey Brian

Ever wondered down the halls of our educational establishments recently. Drugs, Violence, sex, intimidation, Bullying, the list goes on and on. Very few schools can say that they can handle the Kids properly. Its not that teachers have forgoten how to teach or that they dont want to. What we need to do is re-educate the whole country. Too many parents dont know how to parent, some dont care, others just cant cope and need help. But the knock on effect is that too many scottish Kids put no value on an education, therefore dont put any effort into learning, and before its too late end up the un-educated economoic blight thats tearing away at our country. They then go on to have their own kids who perpetuate the cycle.
We need to do more to put education up front in the minds of the parents, A good education can bring prosperity for your kids, grandkids and your country. We should have posters on every street corner saying this.

Otherwise we can all watch them rot

  • 9.
  • At 01:17 AM on 21 Nov 2007,
  • Bill McMenemy wrote:

Peter is totally right. I am teacher and like Graeme I have to "teach to the test." My job consists of a Dickensian "Gradgrind" of getting pupils to pass a grade, any grade in a national certificate exam. Such is the pressure in English depts in particular, to achieve these grades that the teacher either dictates the answers to folio coursework or they themselves write it. I've seen it done. Gordon Brown wants 50% of school-leavers to go to university-why? Is the drop-out rate not high enough? Does he intend to massage the dole queue figures? Does he want thousands of young people to be in hock to the government via student loans? Supposing many do graduate where are they all going to work? We need a diverse economy supporting a broad range of skills. I myself went to university at age 37 in order to become a teacher,since teaching is an all-degree profession. Do I need a degree for the actual work I do? - no. I believe I could take someone with a decent pass at English Higher and train them to do my job in 6 months. The degree is simply a gateway you are required to pass through in order to teach. In teacher training at Jordanhill it was said that school only contributes 15% to your life chances, the rest must come from you. I have a friend in Glasgow who is barely literate, he runs a business which turns over £5m a year.

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