The GOS used to be a teacher, many years ago, and he wishes us to say that just at the moment he feels ashamed of his ex-profession.
Question Time this week concentrated, inevitably, on the public-sector workers' strike and the pensions crisis. A very interesting discussion it was, too, with some sensible comment from panellists (cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke, businesswoman Deborah Meaden, ATL union leader Mary Bousted, MP Chuka Umunna and American commentator David Frum) and members of the public. You can catch up with it on BBC iPlayer here.
One question from the audience was “Why do British youngsters find it so much harder to get work than foreign nationals?” and the old cliché soon surfaced – that many British youngsters have neither the skills nor the commitment to work that employers require. Of course, most clichés are clichés because they contain more than a germ of truth, and the panel were quick to pin the blame where it almost certainly belongs – on the education system.
Successive governments have deliberately and with malice aforethought moulded our schools and our curriculum in such a way that they alienate and fail the majority of children. We no longer teach skills. We no longer teach children to make things. We no longer teach them to understand materials and how to work with them, be they food or textiles or wood or metal. Instead we either concentrate on academic subjects like history or geography or English while making them as palatable and unchallenging as possible, or we glamorise disciplines like music and drama and inflate children's ambitions to a level that can only lead to disappointment.
The GOS's own subject was music, so he knows very well that our schools are churning out hundreds of would-be pop stars and recording engineers and song-writers who know all about electronic keyboards, the X-factor and record contracts but haven't a clue about the years of hard graft that lie behind most successful music careers, and have little idea of the nuts and bolts that hold all music together – harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, notation. And make no mistake, those qualities exist in any kind of music, and musicians who are successful either understand them intuitively which is what makes real talent, or have been taught or more likely have taught themselves by assiduous listening and imitation. When he was a nipper, Johann Sebastian Bach used to sneak downstairs and laboriously copy out his older brother's musical scores by candlelight; that's how he learned to compose. Today, little has changed except that modern recording methods have made the task a little easier. Successful pop musicians today are still marked, more often than not, by their fascination with great music of the recent past. They wouldn't call it “studying”, but that's what it is – serious listening, absorbing the methods and techniques of those they admire, and assimilating them into their own music. Same difference.
So why has this happened? In the case of left-wing governments it has been to serve faulty notions of fairness and equality. It isn't fair that public schoolboys go to university and get all the best jobs, so let's try and open up that opportunity to everyone. Tory governments have acted from ignorance – their own educations have been academic, they all went to university, so that must be the best kind of education for everyone.
There is a fundamental flaw in both arguments. If the most successful people are those who had an academic education and went to university, it must follow that the more people get an academic education and go to university, the more people will be successful? This is rubbish, rather like saying that because a kangaroo using only two legs can outpace a labrador with four, if we cut two of the dog's legs off, it'll be able to keep up. And the proof is easy to see; if all a university degree leads to is a job stacking shelves in Tesco, or worse still no job at all, then there can be little value in a university degree as a means of wealth creation. It may have value as an enhancement of the individual, of course: perhaps in future the universities should be closed to anyone under 65?
The fact is, of course, that the successful people with degrees have other qualifications too. They probably come from middle-class homes where high achievement is normal. They've probably been brought up in houses where reasoned discussion was the norm, rather than foul-mouthed shouting over the television. They may even have gone to a private school where the pupils behaved fairly well and teachers were able to be teachers rather than warders.
So successive governments have picked on just two of those qualifications, the ones we were in a position to do something about, the school curriculum and the universities. There are tribes of islanders in the Pacific who saw tinned goods, tools and materials, all manner of riches, being unloaded from the great silver Dakota birds during WW2, and thought all they had to do was build their own landing strip and those riches would shower down on them again. On our part, we think that all we have to do is give everyone a degree, and we'll automatically become a nation of middle-class high achievers. Not much difference between the two theories, really, and they're both doomed to fail.
If it were possible for governments to influence the home backgrounds of all schoolchildren - if you could insert every child at birth into a home where high achievement is normal, or provide a place at public school for every 13-year-old, the thing might work. These things are not possible, so it never will.
The Grumpy Solution? Turn the clock back. Revive and enliven the teaching of woodwork and metalwork, textiles and cookery, show children the joy of actually making something instead of endless discussion. Teach them car mechanics and brick-laying. Reintroduce school farms. Show them the great and vital skills of following a blueprint and reproducing something designed by someone else, instead of urging them to express themselves when many of them have, through no fault of their own, little to express.
Because these are the qualities that make industry work. It was industry that made this country great in the 19th century, and the fact that working conditions and citizens' rights weren't fully developed then is not a good reason for abandoning the baby as the last of the water gurgles down the plughole. We still haven't entirely lost our knack for making stuff: the UK is the seventh largest manufacturing country in the world although Brazil will have overtaken us soon, and we are particularly adept at manufacturing the kind of high-tech equipment that larger countries need. China makes fridges by the million, but hasn't yet managed a single computerised axial tomography scanner (actually, they might have, for all we know, but you get the gist). There would be much more satisfaction if one didn't suspect that many of the technicians who carry out this admirable work come from Europe or the Far East.
It doesn't take a university degree (no, it doesn't. Our authorities think it takes a university degree to do practically anything these days, but we all know it doesn't) to work out that a constant school diet of self-expression and dilute culture will turn most adolescents off with a vengeance. It's not surprising that truancy is high and school discipline so difficult – thousands of young men and women are being imprisoned in an alien environment and fed on pap by gaolers who, to be fair, often don't even have the courage of their own convictions; many of them know that if they could give little Wayne some metal tubes and a blowtorch and teach him how to make his own motorbike, his attitude would be very different and their work would be both easier and more worthwhile. And let's not pussy-foot around – learning how to weld is a great deal more useful and satisfying than knowing which knobs to twiddle on a keyboard.
Making things is fun. The GOS made a boat a little while ago. It took him three years, he learned a fantastic amount, it floated and went along, he was incredibly proud of it, he sold it to a nice man from the West Country and he is already planning the next one. He knows a group of people who have bought the wreckage of a historic steam locomotive and will, eventually, restore it to working condition. He has a friend who makes the most beautiful model aircraft, accurate in every detail and mostly less than two inches long. These hobbies serve little practical purpose (though the GOS hopes that when Global Warming brings rising sea-levels to Suffolk he will be able to float elegantly out of his garage while his neighbours drown) but people pursue them for the simple joys of creating something, of using hands and tools, for the satisfaction that comes from hard-won achievement, and for the pleasure of learning how other people in the past have lived their lives.
What a dreadful shame, then, that our schools are denying children the opportunity to create anything real, in favour of false promises of self-expression and instant success that are doomed to disappoint. Teachers are the only people who can counterbalance the poisonous influence of the celebrity culture that offers wealth and fame for little skill and no effort, but all they can think of is to strike and march and wave banners because there isn't enough money for them to receive, when they retire, more than the national average wage for doing nothing.
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Copyright © 2011 The GOS