Why University For All?

Well, I heard a snippet of a news article on BBC Radio this morning that said that schools should start encouraging fewer children to consider going on to University from now on. Now can I find that article anywhere on the BBC News website? Of course I can’t. I wanted to  reference it here in my words but as I can’t I’ll just use my own words anyway. This subject has prompted many episodes of anger from me over the years and I can only hope that whatever this news article was suggesting becomes reality sometime soon. A did find an article in the Daily Telegraph from December 2013 but I’m sure I’m not in some kind of time warp.

When I went to secondary school back in the 70s, there were clear demarcations between those children who really were not meant for academia and those that were. There was no stigma or chip on the shoulder of those children who were in the lower streams and likewise those that were in the top stream knew that they had to work particularly hard if they were to earn a place at university. Back then it wasn’t a given that you’d get into Uni as you had to prove yourself as there were fewer places in fewer universities. And if you messed about in class then you’d be looking at a vocational career rather than blue collar but there was no stigma attached to that.

Those that were not destined for academia had a whole raft of other options to consider and, you weren’t seen as the dregs of society if you had aspirations, or expectations, of working in the service industry, construction, or manual labour. There was a place for everyone. Nowadays, every child is made to think that they have a God given right to be at university and that if they don’t get into university then society/government/school has failed them.

I was never dim (others may beg to differ!) but I struggled to get 5 ‘O’ levels. Maths eluded me entirely. But likewise I knew I wanted to be an artist and I headed for art school and an apprenticeship in a local design studio. It was easy – the options existed. There was never any pressure on me to go to university. Maybe there was more local industry in those days where kids could walk out of school into the local factory. I’d have to do a study on that but it’s not really relevant to what I want to say about the here and now so I’ll gloss over it.

I home educated my son from eleven years of age because I was sick and tired of the bullying and bad behaviour allowed in school. And the fact that he was being taught in class how to put a condom on a banana and had to build a model of a mosque in an overnight homework fiasco was the final nail in the coffin. My son wasn’t enjoying education and he certainly wasn’t learning a great deal. He spent his home school years reading, exploring, talking, being active, and studying horses at equestrian colleges. He is now doing post graduate research after winning bursaries for earning a first class degree in sports therapy, with the promise of doctoral research grants next year. And he got into, and through, university without any GCSEs.

But that is the converse of the gripe I have with education nowadays. I allowed my son to be guided by his own experiments in his education and, to be honest, he did very little general learning and I panicked from time to time. But I trusted the old mantra that ‘education is wasted on the young’. He is now thriving, at 22yrs, in academia.

My gripe is that school for children nowadays is an exercise in the discipline of examination . They learn virtually nothing of any value, apart from how to become immeasurably stressed about failure. I spent 10 years (until last year) coaching children in sport and over those years I became increasingly distressed at the deterioration in their overall happiness and mental well-being. The pressure is on children to be academic when in truth they are, at the end of their school year, nothing more than another statistic to bolster school league table results. I wouldn’t mind quite so much if they were allowed to enjoy learning. But they don’t. They learn nothing other than how to revise for the next test.

And, the result of that extended stressful ‘education’? They are all expected to go to university; borrow upwards of £60k sometimes and come out, at the end of it, disenfranchised with the world when they realise that there are no better jobs for them, and those jobs that are there aren’t any better paid or more exciting. So many children would have benefited much more by giving them opportunities to get their hands dirty, allowing them to run wild, encouraging them to find their own dreams and aspirations rather than nailing state endorsed expectations to their foreheads. If alternatives were available to children nowadays, and if manual or service industry work wasn’t seen as a last resort and beneath the consideration of any decent human being, then we’d see a lot more breadth of experience gained by our young people. And, I imagine, they’d be a damned sight happier and more fulfilled than many of them are now.

I see the serious levels of stress everywhere that I see young people, from eleven years and upwards (I’m sure the same applies to those younger than eleven too), and it breaks my heart. For the sake of the future of humanity, let’s allow our children to enjoy childhood, have the opportunity to appreciate real education, and give them the tools to recognise and develop their own aspirations and potential whether that is working as a plumber or a barrister. Let’s stop knocking the vocations and the service industry by making children believe those careers are beneath them. Let’s stop forcing children to go to university to be a nurse, a policeman, a builder or a mechanic. Because that’s the way it’s going. Let’s start telling children that these roles in society are admirable, praiseworthy, immeasurably important and valued. Please?


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