My Grandfather always used to tell me that it was surprising how much you learned after the age of 21. School was just the start of your education, writes Andrew Potts.
I have always been passionate about learning, but the scrapped target in England (and therefore implied in the mind’s eye for the devolved nations) of 50% of young people going to university was always a misjudged policy. In the words of Plato, “knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”
Although the policy’s intention was to improve social mobility, it had a twofold effect. Firstly it devalued degrees. The UK Government’s Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has previously attacked universities for “dumbing down” and “recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances”.
The policy also promoted the perception that those who did not emerge three years later from one of a plethora of former polytechnics with a scroll of paper and a huge debt were somehow ‘less than’; second class citizens compared to those with a third-class degree.
In the meantime, the pandemic has shone a light on devolution with many people now aware for the first time that swathes of their daily lives, including education policy and curricula, are devolved competences.
Throughout the two decades of Welsh Labour in power in Cardiff Bay, Wales has constantly ranked last amongst the four home nations in various PISA results, as well as below the OECD average across various measures. The league table looks like a Eurovision scoreboard with countries such as Estonia, Finland and Poland performing better than the UK (and therefore much better than Wales).
Wales has seen a spring of uncertainty for pupils, a summer of Welsh Government policy U-turns that was the debacle of this year’s exam results, and much talk of a ‘lost generation’ due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, a decision of whether to delay or even cancel next year’s GCSE and A’ Level exams is still awaited.
A priority for a Welsh Conservative Government next year should be an education revolution.
By this, I don’t only mean improving school standards, although the ability of our children to read, write and add up must be improved. As we go into another recession there simply aren’t enough graduate jobs for graduates, which will lead to a crisis of expectations. And this is on top of the fact that a child in Wales already has a one-in-three chance of being born into poverty.
But we must see this as an opportunity. If education is the driving force for our economy it should be at the heart of Wales’ own ‘levelling up’ agenda.
If coronavirus has taught us anything it’s that roles that were previously undervalued and regarded as menial are now lauded as ‘key workers’. Yet even within this, we see sharp differences which mean a care worker is paid less than a shop worker.
In a recently published book by David Goodhart Head Hand Heart, the author divides human aptitudes into Head (cognitive), Hand (manual and craft) and Heart (caring, emotional). In what he describes as ‘graduatisation’ it is notable that in the 1970s most people left school without any qualifications, whereas 40 per cent of jobs now require a degree.
This has meant that as the number of graduates has risen a degree has lost its economic premium and distinguishing feature, meaning more graduates taking postgraduate qualifications in an attempt to stand apart from their contemporaries (guilty as charged).
To improve our society – and our economy – those roles and functions which fall under each of the three categories must be valued. Status has to be imbued upon those who cannot, or do not want to, become a part of the broad notion of academia.
So how do we achieve this in Wales? The 1979 election slogan “Labour isn’t working” still holds true today. A refusal to be outward-looking means that the current administration will, ironically, never learn.
Estonia’s educational success was built on a new national curriculum, a focus on more innovative teaching practices, and upgrading vocational education and training.
The emphasis of Germany’s further education system on high-quality technical education and apprenticeships is held in high regard.
Our universities will always play an important role, but to truly improve and develop our economy, society and culture we must embrace the principles of Head Hand Heart. To effect change of this size and nature requires an outward-looking administration and it will take time. But if a week is a long time in politics just think what the Welsh Conservatives could achieve in their first five-year term in Cardiff Bay.
Andrew Potts is a political activist from Neath.