Do you have a Beruf?

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Drawing on his experience in Germany, Brian Lightman argues why we need to quickly change our attitudes towards vocational education.

Did you know that there is only one word for a trade or profession or career in German? Beruf. 

Think about that. One word covers everything from a car mechanic to a brain surgeon. With its root “rufen” – to call, the same word also implies vocation or calling, in fact it applies to any job.

When I lived in Germany I was very struck by conversations I had with parents or anyone involved in education. Invariably advice given to a child who for any reason was struggling in school would be along the following lines: whatever you do make sure that by the time you finish your time at school you have a Beruf.

This advice was based on the fact that there are hardly any jobs you can get in Germany even at the most basic level without following some sort of post-school training. There is therefore a very high level of motivation even among those students who seem most disaffected with school to get that training.

But this advice also highlighted a fundamental difference in attitudes towards particular careers. Of course there are qualifying adjectives which differentiate some professions but there are clearly defined routes even through the selective school system which enable pupils who have followed a traditional grammar school curriculum to 16 to switch to a route which enables them to access higher level apprenticeships leading to “master” trades or degree-level study in technical disciplines.

Throughout my experiences in Germany I have not come across attitudes that imply any level of inferiority or, dare I say snobbery, towards technical careers. Here are just two examples: First, an electrical fault occurred on a caravan site. The warden pointed me in the direction of a master electrician who happened to be staying at the site. The respect shown to this person who was at the top of his profession was absolutely comparable to the respect shown to a doctor or lawyer in this country. And incidentally nobody asked for a health and safety certificate or public liability insurance. His badge was enough.

Second, a friend’s daughter was an extremely able and motivated school student. At the end of her compulsory education, instead of choosing a university route, she opted to become a master cake baker heading for the top of that trade via years of apprenticeship. Her family was delighted and proud.

I worry deeply about which careers are viewed as interesting or valuable in England. We desperately need motivated and employable young people to enter a vast range of careers for which a traditional university degree is not the right preparation. 

We need to transform attitudes to apprenticeships and employment-based training routes, informing parents as well as young people about the tremendous job satisfaction, not to mention financial reward, from successful careers in a whole range of disciplines.

It is unrealistic to believe that even the most well-informed parents or young people will be able to find their way around this bewildering range of opportunities without professional guidance and support.

However, such developments, necessary though they are, only go part of the way towards addressing this issue. Underlying that single word “Beruf” is a very deep-rooted difference between German and British culture. Although many aspects of German industrial heritage are similar to Britain’s, one key to the German economy has been the high value placed on what we might, with just a hint of condescension, call “trades” or “crafts”.

Another factor, of course, is the huge strength of the tradition of small family businesses in Germany, which is not present in this country. Trying to replicate another country’s economic structure in Britain would not necessarily be desirable or achievable. 

Nevertheless, I am certain that this cultural issue is of fundamental importance if we are to make serious inroads into social mobility and create a society which is not blighted by growing numbers of NEETs (not in education, employment or training) and disaffected youngsters.

The Association of School and College Leaders, in partnership with the Education and Employers Taskforce and the National Apprenticeship Service, will soon be offering support to schools and colleges to raise awareness about the opportunities available to students through apprenticeships. Further details will be available soon.

In his recent book Thinking Allowed on Schooling, Professor Mick Waters wrote the following about the batch of 50,000 babies who will be born in England in any month: “We will need people to grow things. There will need to be some who seek a just and fair society on behalf of all of us and there will be those who seek to help us to avoid conflict and uphold rights. We will need people to entertain us. 

“We will need people to do the dirty jobs and the unthinkable tasks that most of us would turn away from. We will need people who are happy to work behind the scenes to make things happen. We will need people who are brave. We will need those who will care for others and nurture talent. On top of all of this we will need leaders to organise the very society in which we live.”

Our job and privilege as school leaders is to prepare future generations for all of the challenges and opportunities that lie before them.

  • Brian Lightman, a German teacher and former school leader, is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.


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