Wired For Success

11th April 2014

What do you do if Sixth Form just isn’t for you? As the Year 11s approach their last term in school, Heather Harris looks at subjects and places where the less able can get top marks.

Along with writing the worst sex scenes of any novelist, hosting a popular daytime chat show and growing stunning herbaceous borders, Alan Titchmarsh has much to answer for. And now this celebrity gardener – with fertile hands and an equally fertile imagination – can add educationalist to his lengthy CV. Writing for The Telegraph recently, he argued passionately about the value of vocational studies and proper apprenticeships.

In a column entitled Look beyond the merely academic, he stated that ‘It is a shame that the educational system does not recognise that we are all different and that the GCSE, A-Level, University template should not be applied to all.’

It is a crime, he pointed out, that learning a trade is so undervalued. You can’t argue with him. In a society where A stars are about as common as dandelions, the words of this failed grammar school boy made refreshing reading for myself and all other parents with non academic children.

‘They’re not doing A Levels?… I’m so sorry, what will become of them…,’ were the thoughts behind the sympathetic looks that came my way when I said that my twins were leaving school at the age of 16 last summer.

Clearly, in people’s minds the workhouse – or the modern day equivalent, the job centre – beckoned. But how wrong could they be? Roll on eight months and both are thriving at Oaklands College in St Albans, one of the numerous higher educational colleges that are quietly and studiously teaching thousands of children a trade.

My offspring may not be able to recite the Kings and Queens of England or find the angle of an isosceles triangle but ask my daughter to castrate a sheep or my son to teach a room full of disabled youngsters how to play football and they would pass with flying colours. Animal Care and Sports Studies are just two of the full-time courses undertaken by 36% of Hertfordshire students who completed Year 11 in 2013. Pick up a brochure from any of the colleges and you’ll find courses leading to an astonishing range of careers – from Forensic Scientist to Florist, Chef to Chiropodist.

Gill Worgan, Principal and Chief Executive of West Herts College, told me: “More than four thousand young people join us each September to study for a whole range of future careers. The focus is on the futures of our young people, so our courses are taught in industry-standard facilities, by tutors with real experience of the vocation they are teaching.”

The Morrison boys are a case in point; both left school at 16. Zac is now in his first year of business studies at West Hert’s Watford Campus and “loving it” while older brother Phil did Theatre Production at Amersham College, “enjoying every moment”.

Their mother, Juliette, adds “Phil went straight into a job at Legoland and is still living the dream!” and observes “I think these courses allow our kids to achieve without the pressure of an academic classroom and they are learning about a subject they want to do.”

That opinion is shared by Lucy Pilgrim. “My son, James, is doing a Diploma in Film and Media. He has developed his independence skills and is constantly being challenged, and as a result his self esteem has benefited. Having just two and a half days in college means he can work at home where he feels relaxed.”

That is another little known benefit of college courses. The title ‘full time’ is actually deceptive: the majority of courses give the students full or half days off, not only to do academic work at their own pace but also for paid or voluntary jobs.

A willing teenager available on weekdays is a rarity, so while my daughter gains work experience dog walking, grooming horses and helping at a local farm, she has also been paid to clean silver and wait in for deliveries. My son, meanwhile, has helped in his local school’s PE lessons and earned money babysitting for grateful working mothers with children home from school.

Being paid is just a bonus, actually, on top of the work ethic, sense of responsibility and communication skills that these experiences teach, while their ‘academic’ friends sit in school for five days a week, noses in a book.

This is exemplified by 17-year-old Colin Pearson who now goes to college and has his eyes on a catering career. As his mother, Anita, told me, “He would like to open his own food place so has started working in a shop one day a week, which enables him to improve his communication skills and he gets to input data, invoices, banking etc.”

She also feels that the method of teaching, which is so much more practical, definitely suits his skill set, “All the work and understanding is assessed via verbal or written assessments with no exams at the end of the year, which really suits Colin. He really did dislike exams…”

…as do all those many thousands of students who fail to reach their potential at school where success is all measured by those big A, B, C, D letters at the end of the year. But what so many parents, myself included, don’t realise is that even total inability to succeed in an exam situation does not mean a young person’s education has to end.

Andrea Waters could not believe it when she discovered the Landmark Centre at Oaklands College when her son left school. “Here the students, all of whom have some degree of learning difficulty, study a selection of vocation based topics along with functional skills. David has chosen football training, animal care, drama and sports and leisure. In his second year he can study one of these in more detail, either in the mainstream part of the college or carry on in Landmark, along with one day a week work experience in a relevant field. This centre is the perfect option for students who would struggle to do A levels.”

I’m not pretending that it is all rosy in the garden, of course; even Mr Titchmarsh admits, “It takes courage to move away from the established educational route and go your own way. My greatest sadness is the belief that a university education is the be all and end all in life. It is not. We need plumbers and gardeners, hairdressers and decorators, farmers and builders, potters and painters, musicians and equine specialists.”

And, for once, we cannot blame the politicians, as the college courses really are out there and there are more apprenticeships on offer than ever before. North Herts College, for example, launched an initiative in January to encourage local businesses to offer employment opportunities to young people by setting the challenge of providing 100 apprenticeships in 100 days ‘as they are a great way for businesses to employ new staff, and a great way for young people to enter the world of work’. By March they had reached 149 and the number is still rising.

What we need now is for more careers advisers, employers, parents and school leavers themselves to wake up and smell the roses, and not to presume that it is Sixth Form and University or the compost heap. A practical skill should be nurtured and admired just as much as an academic certificate. Just ask Jamie Oliver, Lord Sugar or Richard Branson, all of whom were told they ‘could do better’ at school.

After all, in a crisis, what would be more useful: a son who could count to three hundred in Latin or one who could knock up a soufflé for 12 people, a daughter who could draw a diagram of a heart or one who could change your spark plugs? And, who knows, there could be a budding Titchmarsh in the family just waiting to take over his celebrity spade… if given half a chance to flourish.

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