Bruce Charlton and Peter Andras: Why pupils need to stay flexible

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The Independent Online

Over the past weeks, many educational commentators have called for increased status for vocational and practical training.

Over the past weeks, many educational commentators have called for increased status for vocational and practical training. And the new specialist schools will encourage teenagers to become experts in a narrower curriculum. Yet we believe that training teenagers in practical skills is inferior to educating them in general abstract thinking.

Early specialisation is a poor preparation for the modern world, and may leave its victims locked into the lowest stratum of a stagnant economy. In the past, there were fewer types of job, and jobs did not change much between generations. It was reasonable then for children to specialise early. This led to the traditional prolonged apprenticeship for a lifelong vocation. But now people live longer, and there are increasing numbers of increasingly specialised jobs.

Jobs in heavy industries, such as coal mining and shipbuilding have gone. Instead, there is a whole range of new driving jobs in the enlarged road transport system. Computerisation and word-processing destroyed a multitude of white-collar secretarial and clerical jobs, which have been replaced by new kinds of junior managerial positions in administration, sales, finance and personnel. Such rapid turnover creates the need for flexibility - flexible attitudes as well as flexible skills.

The traditional ideal of devoted service to a particular line of work becomes a curse when pay and conditions deteriorate, or the job disappears - as university academics are beginning to realise. It does children no favours to set them up with expectations of a lifetime of employment in a single profession or craft. Modern societies have discovered that the duration of vocational training can be much shorter for people who have experienced a general abstract education. Employers have found college graduates can rapidly learn specific jobs and are better at updating skills and switching roles. This partly explains why graduates are paid much more than those with only work experience. It also explains why countries with growing and changing economies are expanding universities to provide a bigger pool of adaptable graduates.

There is a long-term trend to extend the duration of general education up into the early twenties, and to delay vocational education. People are now prepared "just in time" for specific jobs by a short but highly focused training programme. For example, in the US, specialisation is not chosen until after a multidisciplinary first degree. Only then will those aiming at the high-status professions study medicine or law at graduate school, learn a specialist trade at college, or undergo short training programmes in private corporations.

These late specialisers can remain uncommitted until their personality has stabilised, and will avoid developing a frame of mind which regards the need to change jobs as a disaster. The specific content of formal education does not seem to have a large impact on later success.

However, studying A-level maths is statistically associated with an increased salary. This probably implies that the benefits of formal education are greatest when the student learns abstract and systematic disciplines - such as the natural and social sciences, including study of languages. Abstract systems are applicable generally, across many situations and disciplines; just as algebra calculations are equally applicable to beads, beans or human beings.

By contrast, work experience prepares teenagers with skills and behaviours tied to a specific job context. Outside that context, the rules and expectations are likely to be different, and their knowledge is not transferable. The imperative of universal respect should not blind us to the real disadvantages and diminished life possibilities suffered by those who have missed out on formal and systematic education.

Contemporary society has an ever-decreasing need for skilled human labour, and and ever-greater need for abstract cognitive skills. In this respect, all jobs are converging. Ringing declarations of equality may then serve to perpetuate class distinctions, since employees who lack the capacity for cognitive abstraction may become "trapped" by their blinkered perspectives, and fear of the unfamiliar.

By prematurely channelling teenagers into specific vocations, we may end up training large numbers of people in irrelevant skills for jobs that will soon cease to exist. And such young adults will be saddled with narrow and inflexible attitudes which make it hard to adapt to the enforced changes that are inevitable in the modern world.

The writers teach at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne

education@independent.co.uk

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