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Robert Thomas: The academic and vocational paths to success must both begin in schools

Thomas RobertRobert Thomas is reading for a Ph.D. at Cambridge, and is Registrar of the University Conservative Association.

The subject of skills ranked among the major themes at this year’s Conference in Manchester. Do we have the skills we need? How do we ensure that we have them? Whose responsibility is it to teach them?

Indeed, there were few policies more universally lauded than the Government’s bold apprenticeships programme, spearheaded by John Hayes. His refreshing approach has been to ensure that the vocational route is just as seductive, rewarding, and, consequently, well-trodden as the academic. It will put an end to the myth perpetuated by the last Government that universities hold the only key to a profitable and successful adulthood, and for that, the Minister must be congratulated.

A problem will remain, however, for as long as vocational training is regarded as something to be considered only if one does poorly at school. No matter how grand the ceremonies and glittering the prizes for new apprentices are made, the residual sense that they are somehow beneath their academic peers will linger for as long as apprenticeships are seen as something to be done in spite of, and not because of, school.

The English Baccalaureate can, by removing the emphasis in schools on equipping children for particular jobs and placing it on developing crucial and universally-applicable skills, be a potent force in combating this stigma. Its small core affirms the idea that the study of any rigorous discipline has an intrinsic value, and enshrines the merits which the process of learning has for whatever the learner goes on to be and do. Pupils can still pursue their studies across the whole panoply of endeavour according to their interests, aptitudes, and ambitions, all the while honing the fundamental skills which will stand them in excellent stead for their futures.

This is the central (and, one might have hoped, obvious) point which Labour fail to realise: it is impossible to assume that we can predict what specific skills the later stages of this century will require of today's children, let alone to teach them by the age of 16. We cannot know where the march of technology will lead us, and it is astonishingly arrogant to suggest that parking a child in front of an Excel spreadsheet or showing him a growth profit matrix goes any way to addressing that. What we do know – and know with certainty – is that they will need flexible, adaptive, and incisive minds, capable of assimilating large volumes of information, and responding to new and challenging situations with ease. Whether they go on to be university professors, civil engineers, carpenters, chefs, or software technicians, these are the skills which children need, and these are the skills which it must be the duty of schools to develop.

In his speech to the Labour Conference in September, quondam shadow education secretary Andy Burnham envisaged a school system in which "employers have more influence on what subjects children take", and in so doing, revealed an attitude which would serve only to calcify the lamentable notion that vocational education is in some sense inferior to academic study. To tie children to the transient wishes of employers so early is to deny them the simple, joyous, and enthralling pleasure of finding things out for their own sake and would, over time, erode that spirit of discovery for which Britain – from Isaac Newton to Tim Berners-Lee – has so long been famed.

There is, of course, no subject more derided by the shadow education bench than the classics. They dismiss the merits of Greek and Latin as “irrelevant” on the basis, it seems, that Sophocles and Cicero died quite a while ago, and so cannot possibly teach us, with our smartphones and our iPads, anything. They make no mention of the classics’ power to quicken the wits and sharpen the cognitive faculties, and thereby reveal a woefully narrow and utilitarian approach to schooling. Academic study must be about much more than equipping a child for a job; it must be about the opening and nourishing of a mind. It must inculcate a love of wisdom, an appreciation of beauty, and an understanding of the power of curiosity. These are the timeless values which schools must foster, far beyond Labour’s power to detract under the facile banner of modernity.

Rather than short-sightedly promote subjects in vogue, we must engender a culture wherein schools are seen as training grounds for every type of mind – places where they can be drawn out in any, and all, directions. It is only through that cultural shift that we can realise in our system what W. B. Yeats knew so well, that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”.


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