Teachers at a further education college in a big town in the south-east of England were so concerned by the lack of social skills and literacy levels of its student intake last year that they decided to survey them. One of the questions asked was how often they sat down and had meals with their parents or families; 70 per cent of those asked said they never sat down for a regular meal, ever. The majority were boys.
The story was told to me by one of the college governors who was as stunned as the teachers by the survey and has been influential in persuading the college to provide remedial work for their students. They shouldn't have been so shocked – more than a decade ago Ofsted warned that the under-performance of white working-class boys was a matter for great concern, that many were more interested in the three Fs – fighting, football and f…ing – than the three Rs.
This under-performance or lack of aspiration is now affecting even those boys who do make the grade through school to A-level. Even if you factor-in the effect of higher tuition fees, the numbers of white, working-class boys applying to university last year fell massively – by 13 per cent or 22,000 boys – four times greater than the drop in applications from girls.
So it's no surprise that David Willetts, the universities minister, has suggested universities should be asked to recruit more from this social group, and admissions bodies should be asked to treat them like any other minority.
Mr Willetts is absolutely right that more needs to be done to target these boys but his remedy is not enough; more needs to be done much earlier in their educational careers.
What all teenagers need – not just this social group – is much better guidance and quality direction in their schools; from the age of 12 onwards. Most careers services at school are perfunctory, carried out by stoic teachers on a voluntary basis. Sadly most of them don't know enough to offer decent advice either on the A-levels needed for university courses or the many options available for apprenticeships – which can also lead to part-time degree courses.
The irony is that there are masses of jobs available; the UK has a massive skills gap that is only going to get worse over the next decade. We need technical staff and engineers in the automotive, bio-technology, aerospace, green, and oil and gas industries to name just a few. But who knows this? Most teachers certainly don't. There's only one way to get the message across and that's to help mentor and advise our teenagers, make them feel special and to give them what they don't get around the breakfast or dinner table.
Here's my idea: each of the UK's 3,400 state secondary schools should employ a specialist careers person from the private sector who is highly trained in all new industries, and is dedicated solely to spending time with pupils discussing their future careers and bringing local and national businesses into the schools.
Let's say these specialists are paid £50,000 each – add on a bit for costs – it would cost the country around £240m. That's not much in the scheme of things but just think of the benefits. Businessmen such as the Confederation of British Industry's Sir Roger Carr should consider making such a service a priority, and lobby the Government to work with the LibDem MP, Gordon Birtwistle, who has just proposed an excellent Private Members Bill for a national careers service.
It's worth going back on the BBC's Parliament channel to watch Birtwistle when he presented the bill's first reading last October – there were about five MPS in the Commons listening to him. Say no more.
Buffett's green buy turns the Oracle of Omaha into the Sun King
Going against the grain has always been one of Warren Buffett's strictest maxims for making money; he bought Wrigley's chewing gum when it was stuck on the floor and shares in Goldman Sachs and Bank of America when they were close to bottom. (His Berkshire Hathaway company beat the S&P 500 index last year – and BofA shares were up 17 per cent).
So you have to sit up when the octogenarian makes new moves, as he did last week by buying a Californian solar energy project that has the potential to be the biggest in the world.
It's Buffett's third investment in solar in little over a year – tax breaks help – but this latest is a game-changer and shows just how fast the solar industry is developing. He's making the $2.5bn (£1.6bn) investment through MidAmerican Energy Holdings – a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. It's buying the two 579-megawatt photovoltaic projects in the Antelope Valley which are still under development and form part of MidAmerican Solar which owns other big solar farms in the district.
This is a classic Buffett-style business – one with high capital expenditure needs that eat up the billions of cash that Berkshire spews out every year. He also likes being in the lead in his industries, helping shape policy just as he did with the banks after the crash. In fact, US analysts are asking whether Buffett is building MidAmerican up to float. After this latest deal, it has the potential to be one of the biggest green businesses in the US and possibly the world.
Buffett also knows that the US is taking its sun power seriously – the authorities recently gave pre-approved planning on huge tracts of land across six states, about 285,000 acres of public land, for solar developers to now look at with low risk.
That's the sort of approach we need here in the UK where – believe it or not – the potential for solar energy is also huge and so much cheaper and more efficient than other renewables such as wind. To quote one of Buffett's many aphorisms: "As Mae West said, 'Too much of a good thing can be wonderful'."
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