Is the education system effecting the skills shortage?

Is the education system effecting the skills shortage?

So, there it was, some uplifting news at long last. Against all the odds, closed classrooms, home schooling and isolation to name but a few, the recent round of GCSE and A-Level pass rates were off the scale yet again. Which can only mean one thing, right? That the nation’s students are clearly becoming brighter with each passing year, and that our education system is of the highest calibre right across the board? Well, not exactly. In fact, you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that something is not quite adding up here.

Whilst the now customary scenes of unbridled joy and weeping (and that’s just the parents) were being played out across the nation last month, there were thousands upon thousands of unseen and largely ignored young people left behind in the celebrations. Lacking the necessary passports to the promised land of further education, they have good reason to feel horribly let down by a system which continues to snobbishly place academia above all other career options. “Oh well,” we hear the familiarly self-satisfied refrain, “they can always become a plumber, builder or electrician. After all, the country is crying out for more apprentices to train as tradespeople”. If only it were that simple, of course.

Go back a couple of generations and you will see where it all started to go wrong for so many less academically gifted students and why, if real action is not taken very quickly, we will never even begin to address the serious on-going problem of skills shortages within the construction sector, one which consistently undermines every potential upturn in economic fortunes.

Those of a certain age will almost certainly be able to recall like it was yesterday the sheer sense of wonder and excitement of being let loose for the first time in a fully equipped school workshop. Here in a world of sawdust and swarf, far removed from the dreary classrooms of blackboards and books, a multitude of practical tasks would be undertaken, all under the watchful eye of a most likely seasoned ex pro who had quite literally come in from the cold.

Back in the early seventies it was not unusual to have more than ten workshops at a single school teaching woodwork, metal work, engineering, plastering, plumbing, painting, and decorating and carpentry and joinery. Pupils not even into their teens regularly used lathes, shaping and milling machines and items that they had cast in the foundry, which meant pouring molten metal into moulds. Common sense, respect and discipline was the order of the day and accidents were extremely rare – in fact, the biggest risk was a clip round the ear for not paying sufficient attention to the instructions. Those with a clear practical basis were quickly fast tracked to more ambitious projects, and many of these pupils invariably went on to pursue a career in construction or engineering and, in time, graduated to running highly successful businesses of their own. By the eighties, of course, the all-embracing title of Handiwork Skills was replaced by the more on trend Technical Studies and then Design and Technology where the practical aspect began to diminish with much more emphasis on the theoretical. Invariably workshops began to surrender to relentless demand for extra classroom space and the obsessive drive to academic achievement.

Fast forward three decades and we are constantly asking ourselves why everyone under thirty-five is absolutely hopeless at DIY. Millions of young men haven’t a clue how to do simple household tasks, be it rewiring a plug or bleeding a radiator. The nation, it is said, has fallen out of love with DIY but, with hindsight, so many never had the opportunity to become enamoured in the first place. It’s hardly rocket science that so many young people now prefer to extend the prospect of the warm, sanitised, environment of the classroom to the unfamiliar and daunting prospect of getting their hands dirty on a cold damp building site, which even in these more enlightened times has never exactly been a place for mollycoddled shrinking violets. How could you possibly begin to comprehend that you might have a real penchant for the practical when your school environment is geared so exclusively to the classroom? Surely, it’s a lesson in real “old school thinking” which the Government urgently needs to put back on its own curriculum by next term at the earliest.

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