Gareth Knight is the head of Projecting Politics, the country's leading provider of political resources for schools and producer of the Untangled Web series of publications. Gareth worked for 5 years as a Conservative Party Agent and is a school governor in Friern Barnet.
> Policy summary
A mandatory six week course for school leavers taking place between the end of the GCSE examination period in late June and GCSE result day in early August.
The course would be focused on preparing students for the ‘real world’ and would aim to increase the life and social skills of pupils at the key time between school and work or college.
> Policy explanation
I am shortly to turn 28 and have been told that you know when you’re no longer ‘young’ as you start complaining that today’s teenagers are lacking in social awareness and all the basic social skills that we had ‘in my day’. I therefore fully expect to be brought to book on that point!
The education system is incredibly over-crowded with demands on teachers’ and pupils’ time. Indeed, a recent policy decision by this website demands that yet another subject, history, be made a compulsory GCSE topic. This pressure on the schools has led to the decline of education as a people-enhancement issue as schools devote so much time to making sure pupils pass exams rather than prepare them for life.
The argument always comes up that teachers are educators not parents; that it is the responsibility of family life to build characters. This is entirely true. Character is formed by parents, friends and family. What is lacking is not character, but basic non-academic education.
If you regularly speak to 16 year olds, and by that I don’t mean Young Conservative types with a strong or even passing interest in politics, you have no doubt been surprised by the lack of basic knowledge they have about politics, the media, religion and etiquette.
Indeed, when I first met a 21-year-old close friend of mine, I couldn’t believe that a highly academic student who had spent a year working in the civil service and is expecting a first class degree could not know the difference between a councillor and an MP. She looked completely blank when I once mentioned the GLA and had no idea what an MEP was at all.
This is far from an exceptional case. There are dozens of people entering work, regardless of university, who have no idea about a basic part of the British political system.
This can also be said for the media, taking the word of a newspaper as fact and religion, not realising the theological closeness of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
If a 16-year-old applies for a job the most knowledge they will have will be based on some vague idea of what a CV should look like. They certainly wouldn’t know how to work out their own taxes and benefits, then, come to think of it, many 50 year olds don’t either.
A key element of the ‘Finishing School’ would be etiquette. For example, I cannot be the only person that gets quietly infuriated at the way some people hold their knives and forks. Just sit in any pub during a Sunday lunch carvery and you’ll see what I mean. Take a look around you and look at the people. You will see people of all ages and all backgrounds. You will quickly realise that holding a knife and fork is a generational rather than a class issue. The grandparents and parents, be they suited up or dressed in a football top with tattoos will hold their knife in their right hand, the handle under the palm and they will use it to cut food. They will hold their fork in their left, again, the handle under the palm, the spokes curving downwards. Then look at the younger people. Invariably they will have their fork in their right hand in the scooping ‘soup spoon’ position and their knife will be used to tear up food, often on the table when not in use and when being held in the ‘pen’ position.
Sound familiar? This may sound incredibly petty but it is a damning indictment on the UK when our upbringing can’t even teach us to use a knife and fork – hardly rocket science.
A lack of basic etiquette – be that at the dinner table, at a drinks reception or in the pub is the slippery slope towards idleness, an idleness that can in turn become a lack of respect that can, for a small minority, lead to a lack of compassion and empathy. Hence, crime and a lack of opportunity and responsibility.
My proposal is that the six week ‘Finishing School’ would be a mandatory pre-requisite to getting your GCSE results – you have to sit the school to get the results. This would apply to those going on to do A-Levels, those doing vocational courses and those leaving education altogether (yes, a policy that recognises that the vast majority of young people are not either planning on going to university or planning to become criminals).
The six-week course would be an intensive back-up to the basic things taught in PSHE and citizenship lessons earlier on in secondary education. Four of those weeks would look at: political citizenship, the media, self-management (finances, taxes, credit, benefits, job applications), religious citizenship, first aid and culture. One week would be spent with a voluntary organisation.
The key week would be a residential, away from the student’s school and with no other pupils from that immediate area. Groups of students who have never met would be put together and taken through basic teamwork, etiquette and interpersonal skills training. Students would be taught basic etiquettes regarding conversation, drinking, eating, even the basics of dancing! By the end of the week, they will have been forced into meeting people from many different backgrounds, in most cases for the first time, and they will have a far greater understanding of the world outside their home town and school.
> Political risks and opportunities
- this policy would be immensely popular with a ‘middle England’ increasingly frustrated at ‘young’uns today’ and their lack of social skills
- this policy actually recognises the need to support all post-16 people whereas there has been an obsession with young people meaning just criminals or university students – only around 4 in 10 young people are either of these!
- providing 16-year-olds with basic social skills will be a genuine move towards tackling ‘the causes of crime’ as everyone is made to work with others, even if they don’t know them
- it will give people the practical experience of supporting a voluntary organisation, thereby increasing the likelihood that more people will be active in voluntary work in the future
- it will fill a void for basic self-management teaching which may discourage debt
- it will make the workforce considerably more attractive for business
- it will encourage mobility
- the accusation that this is a ‘nanny state’ approach, doing the job of parents for them
- objections from the teaching profession as they lose holiday in the summer
- objections from the metropolitan elite who believe that all children are destined to be litigation solicitors and civil servants
- the policy could be branded as elitism, particularly in terms of the etiquette part of the course
- the policy could be branded as old fashioned and dictatorial if we allow it to be labelled ‘boot camp’ or ‘national service’
- objections from parents of troublesome kids who think ‘they know best’ despite little Jonny being a convict-in-waiting – anyone who is a school governor will recognise this group!
- sadly, one unexpected incident at the residential could lead to the whole project being labelled such things as ‘paedophile’s paradise’ and so on
- with any political or religious element there will be some criticism that we are ‘brainwashing’ people
- there will be ‘outrage’ from some who will say “this has nothing to do with GCSEs and so why should they be withheld from students if they haven’t done this course?”
- the cost (see below!)
> Questions for ConservativeHome readers
- If this is not the answer then what is? Please bear in mind that some parents simply will not teach their kids much of this because they weren’t taught it themselves. So please don’t say ‘it’s the parents’ responsibility, it may be, but we are where we are!
- Should there be a language element in the course?
- Should this course, or a slight variation on it, be extended to include all immigrants into the UK as part of their introduction?
- Should this course, or a slight variation on it, be extended to include undetained criminals and prisoners on their release?
- Should the course be available to all people regardless of age on a voluntary basis?
- Should the course, or a part of it, be assessed? If so, bear in mind that employers would start asking for job applicants’ scores.
- Should this be paid for through general taxation or targeted taxation (see below)?
The cost of doing these courses would be huge, particularly the residential element. I hope the benefits would considerably outweigh the costs but I propose that this be funded by a temporary direct tax, paid by the student themselves upon starting work.
There are circa 750,000 students in each school year. The cost of extending the school term for these students would be met with an instant demand for a pay increase by teachers. A 15% increase would be the equivalent of around £125 per pupil. Extra costs associated with the scheme (school utilities, resources) would probably come to around £25 per pupil.
The residential week would be highly expensive. Each week during the period in question, 125,000 16-year-olds will be in conference hotels and venues across the country. Having briefly spoken to conference organiser friends of mine, they estimate that the costs per pupil would be between £1,000 and £1,500 depending on the venue and the details of the schemes. According to the same friends, they believe around 1,000 venues in the UK could presently cope with this kind of scheme meaning that each venue would have on average 125 students present (university campuses and large hotels would obviously be able to cope with far more students without any loss of quality). Travel from the student’s home town to the venue would be a further £50. Insurance would add on another large cost.
On these figures, the cost would range from a minimum of £1,200 to £1,700 per student, or £900m to £1.275bn in total. Let’s assume for a moment that costs spiral (as they always tend to do whenever a government is involved) and round it up to £1.5bn. Let’s also therefore round up the cost per student to £2,000. That could be paid for through taxation but I would suggest that all students would pay a special ‘Finishing School levy’ of 1p in £1 on their income until it is paid off.
If for example a student starts work at 16 on a salary of £14k, it will be paid off when they are 30 if they never get a pay rise. At that point their income tax will essentially drop 1p. If the student starts work at 21 on a salary of £22k, it will also be paid off when they are 30 if they never get a pay rise. Using this system, a half-way house between a student loan and an ear-marked tax, no current taxpayers will have to pay for the scheme but the scheme will be funded.