Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Under pressure

I hear today that there are suggestions that school children are suffering from more stress than ever before with the pressure of examinations. Although I make no secret of my belief that school exams have become easier and grades inflated (simply as a political tool to demonstrate how "successful" an education programme has been) I can quite easily believe that children are under more pressure with examinations than they have ever been.

When I was coming to the end of my time in junior school (as we used to call it back then) we were vaguely aware of the impending 11+ test - but there was no attempt to teach towards it and there was no major importance placed on the examination. We didn't go through practice tests or mock examinations - one day we were ushered into a classroom, took the test and that was it. A few months later we got a letter asking us to choose the school we wanted to go to and, for those of us who passed, this included grammar schools.

It was different at grammar school with O levels - we were obviously taught specifically for those tests from quite a few years back - however there was not the emphasis on the importance of getting results other than from the point of view of getting into sixth form and on to university. For those of us uninterested in sixth form or university it was no big deal.

One of the reasons why this wasn't so important and why there was less stress placed on children was that there were plenty of job options available. Of course, it helped that I lived next door to the biggest trading estate in Europe, but that wasn't the sole reason. Back then, Britain was still predominantly a manufacturing nation.

There was a big demand for workers at all levels - from manual labourers, through semi-skilled and skilled right up to graduate class. Whatever your level of education there was always a decent well paid job available (by the standards of the time) for anyone prepared to put a bit of effort into finding one.

There were thousands of apprenticeships for school leavers providing young people with an oppotunity to learn a valuable life long trade. However, most apprenticeships were "indentured" requiring a long term commitment from the employee of four to five years.

On top of those formal apprenticeships there were also lots of firms - large, medium and small - offering a kind of informal apprenticeship and sponsoring "day release" enabling school leavers to work four days a week and attend a college course, paid for by your employer, on the other day. Virtually everyone I knew, regardless of which school they went to, went through this system - either finding an apprenticeship or a job with day release if they left school at sixteen.

I'll be honest, I've never been so well off as I was in those first few years as a wage earner - even though I only started off on £16 a week. I should also point out that the dole paid £9 a week at the time I started work and there was no tax or NI on top of that!

By the time I'd had my deductions and handed mum a fiver for "upkeep" I was worse off than most people claiming unemployment benefit - but I still seemed to have enough cash to go out six nights a week and spend most lunchtimes in the boozer nursing a pint of Trophy bitter and a cheese roll.

I even had enough money to run a motorcycle - well, a second hand FS1E*, but it was unrestricted and good for 60 when flat on the tank with a following wind. After a couple of pay rises and a year or so saving I'd managed to upgrade the Fizzy to a Kawasaki KH250** and started paying for driving lessons!

However, by then - unfortunately - our membership of the EEC and the Labour government had done their damage and Britain was in the middle of the winter of discontent and dire economic circumstances (see - nothing really changes). Our manufacturing base was already in decline and with it were the jobs and training which us youngsters had taken for granted when leaving school.

And this is why there is so much pressure on kids today. Even university graduates are finding it hard to find jobs and often end up working at KFC or Poundland. All those technical colleges converted to universities and firms no longer bother to offer day release schemes.

The over emphasis on university and "degrees" means that too many kids are vying for too few spots in those universities and competing for ever declining slices of the government cash that pays for those universities (not including the massive debt they incur through student loans).

This is the reality that faces school leavers today and this is why there is so much pressure and, consequently, so much stress for school children. It's not that the exams are so tough - they aren't compared to O levels and A levels of the sixties and seventies (and everyone really knows they aren't).

This is also why it is so daft to talk about a "high tech" economy. Even assuming we could do "high tech" better than the emerging nations (which is doubtful) it is ridiculous to assume that everybody is capable of working in "high tech". A target of 50% in university would be fine if 50% of jobs were high really skilled graduate jobs - but they aren't - and 50% of school leavers are not really university potential either.

Indeed, I suspect that 90% of "graduate" positions today would have been filled more than adequately by 16 year old school leavers on day release back in 1973 - and I suspect that considerably more than 50% of jobs available today do not require particularly high levels of education.

What we need is a properly balanced mixed economy with an emphasis on manufacturing - not service - providing a range of job options for school leavers. On top of that we need a proper education system that does select the best to go on university, but that also provides the majority with a decent level of education as well.

And we need proper apprenticeships and business sponsored day release at technical colleges for school leavers who don't want to go into sixth form or university, but just want to work and earn enough money to buy a few beers a week and a motorcycle.

* The Yamaha FS1E was a 50cc sports moped and learner legal for sixteen year olds. Affectionately known as the Fizzy (or Fizzie) it was every 16 year old school boys ambition to get his leg over one - far more than it was to get his leg over in the other way, if you know what I mean! How times change.

**The Kawasaki KH250 was a learner legal (17 years +), three cylinder, two stroke, rev happy, 250cc motorcycle with fiendish acceleration and a propensity to buck around like an angry bull under braking. It handled like a brick and the factory fitted tyres were lethal in the wet - but I loved it to bits and went everywhere on that bike.


Antisthenes said...

I would be grateful if you can send your piece to Ed Balls the fatuous fart of Education. He would not listen of course probably wouldn't read it.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Speaking as someone who had exams* at the end of every single term from the age of eight to the age of eighteen, culminating in finals that consisted of twelve (yes, twelve) three-hour exams spread over six days either side of a weekend, can I just suggest that modern kids wouldn't recognise pressure if it came up and bit them on the bum.

* No continuous assessment, no projects work, no multiple-choice, no soft options - EXAMS.

Anonymous said...

That was like reading my own life story Stan. Left school in '73, six CSE's and "cannon fodder" for industry - so said my fifth-form teacher (doubling as career advisor) at school. So I did. Indentured apprentice - 4 years on shit wages but I did get to be a precision engineer for my troubles. Remember those bikes you mention, I had a Suzuki Hustler myself. Happy days when you could leave a job on Friday and start work at another place the following Monday. Slade, T.Rex, Mott the Hoople, et al.

I could go on all day but I'll end by saying we had a highly cohered and largely self-regulating society when you and I were teenagers Stan. That has gone - probably forever. Cheers mate.


Stan said...

Blimey, Mr Yachtsman - exams at the end of every term! What sort of school was that?

We certainly had regular "tests" which were - I suppose - exams of a sort, but there still wasn't the same pressure there is today. Perhaps we coped with the pressure better, but I don't think so - the pressure really wasn't there. I suppose, in part, that's because the exams were only for our benefit - there were no "league tables" or Ofsted inspections to worry about.

Sounds like you have a few years on me Steve, but yeah - the ethos was still the same when I left school. The Hustler was a bit before my time - the GT250 being the Suzuki of choice for the discerning 17 year old. Almost as quick as the KH250 but more stable and better handling as I remember - nowhere near as good looking though ;)

Considering the choice of cheap, quick motorcycles that we could ride on L plates with a provisional licence at 17 with no training it's a wonder that more of us didn't kill ourselves. There was even one chap in my class at college who passed his test and was tooling around on a Z1 before he was 18!

By the time I was into motorbikes I'd moved on from glam rcck to punk rock. The Damned, Clash and Pistols had replaced Slade, T Rex and MtH (though I still loved their music and still do).

Anonymous said...

Kawazaki Z1 900cc DOHC I wish (dribbles down shirt). Got my first car before I was able to look seriously at a bigger bike - my squeeze back then was a looker, not a biker lol. A mate of mine at technical college was decapitated riding a YDR7 one night over the Purbecks in Dorset. Chris was a great bloke, still miss the nutter 35 years on. He'd put a deposit down on a GT550 as well! As for punk I did buy the Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks at Virgin Records the day the first store opened in Southampton. Cheers.


opsimath said...

Sadly, I have nothing to add to this wonderful piece of nostalgia - except perhaps that my wages when I first became an apprentice, were £5 2 0, apart from one week in four when I received £5 2 1 !

I have often wondered if there might have been a farthing in there somewhere!

Happy days - fags at 4/6d for twenty and all the girls wore stockings!

Thank you - the 60s were MUCH better than now.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Yes it does seem a bit extreme, doesn't it? (It's all true btw!)

But the point is, if you have regular exams, you soon learn to soak up the pressure.

And then when the day comes and the exam paper says "Oxford Local Advanced Level" on it - I can still see those pale green papers, and the dust in the sunbeams slanting through the gym windows - instead of "Our School Michaelmas Term Exam" or whatever, it's all the same, you just sigh, turn it over, and get on with the job.

Real life won't care whether you feel pressured or not, so you might as well get used to it early.