Is university the best preparation for the future?

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While we have been pushing more and more students to go to university, jobs have become harder and harder to find for young people. Marion Gibbs on why her school is encouraging students to consider all their options when deciding on their progression.

I was amazed to hear a debate on the news as to whether the army should be allowed to continue to recruit 16-year-olds. This surprised me because, as of this year, the school leaving age has been raised to 17, or does enrolling for service in the armed forces count as education and training?

There is still much confusion as to exactly how schools and colleges will accommodate these additional students and what education or training they will be offered. Certainly, the funding issue for 16 to 19 students is looming large.

We have a dilemma in this country. We have been encouraging as many young people as possible to continue to study and to enrol on university degree courses. The number of institutions which have university status has increased dramatically in recent years as have the courses available, although now we are seeing some retraction. However, these students have incurred huge levels of debt and many have failed to obtain the posts or careers to which they aspired.

A recent radio programme focused on the efforts to find employment of three out of work young people. One had a degree in journalism with media and cultural studies, another a degree in drama in the community, and the third had a diploma in ocean science. All had very specialised qualifications, which appeared to relate to specific jobs and careers, but their courses were so specialised that they may actually have closed doors, not opened them.

Most news organisations recruit students with high-quality degrees in subjects such as English or history and politics, augmented by a post-graduate journalism course. Arts in the community have been badly affected by spending cuts and many organisations are now staffed by volunteers. And a diploma in ocean science does not carry the kudos of a science degree. These young people had applied for huge numbers of jobs without success; all were working as volunteers in some capacity, but growing increasingly disheartened. One wonders what careers advice or guidance they had received. 

Will the students who are being compelled to stay on at school until the age of 18, be encouraged to apply for any degree courses which attract them? Or will they be guided into degrees or training which enable them to gain employment? 

In the UK, we have skills shortages as well as a significant proportion of people who are unable to find work. We need more people who are skilled in ICT and engineering, for example; we are also short of nurses and of craftsman, such as builders, plumbers, electricians and plasterers.

In the independent sector we have been encouraging more of our students to think about becoming entrepreneurs and to acquire the skills needed for this, and to think seriously about degrees in IT and engineering. At our school I have noticed an increase in students being interested in all these areas and in nursing, and we also have past pupils who are trained plumbers and electricians or who have studied agriculture.

One often hears or reads that the reason that independently educated students find employment more easily than others is nepotism – students are given introductions by parents, relatives and friends and have privileged access to internships and work experience.

I suspect that this is actually more closely associated with the middle classes than type of school, and as I have said and written on many occasions, it is lazy shorthand automatically to equate independently educated with middle class. There are plenty of middle class children in state schools.

We have an opportunity with the latest raising of the school leaving age to focus more clearly on preparing young people for jobs and careers which actually exist and for which they are well qualified and suited. However, I sometimes feel that the unrelenting focus on the structure of school examinations and of schools themselves leaves little room for such urgent and practical considerations. I hope that I’m wrong.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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