Editor-At-Large: Schools should teach the three Rs: reading, writing and reality

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Politicians made young people so many promises – education, education, education – and yet a whole generation has ended up with very little. Latest figures show that nearly a million people under 25 are unemployed. Even worse, 600,000 haven't worked since leaving school.

Coincidentally, as these shocking statistics were made public, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, unleashed another attempt to reconfigure the national curriculum, with the aim (I suppose) of making the young more employable. He claims that standards of literacy and numeracy have plummeted (true) as schools have focused on too many compulsory subjects. Gove wants maths, English, science and PE designated core subjects, and a review will help decide what should be added. He has hinted that modern languages and history are preferences.

The biggest losers in our education system are white boys from lower income groups; 44 per cent leave primary schools without a decent level of literacy. Mr Gove is right to focus on basic maths and literacy – up to secondary school age. Then he must be realistic. We have to prepare children for the work that is available and appropriate. If they can't read and write properly by 11, any lessons at secondary schools are of limited use. Forcing all kids to study history and French won't make any difference to their work prospects.

Our current problems stem from how kids leave primary school and what their aspirations are. They are immersed in a culture where some of their peers earn a lot of money singing, dancing or kicking a ball. Sadly, most jobs are dreary and repetitive. Historically, most young people left school, worked in shops and factories or trained in apprenticeships. Young girls got married, had kids and did part-time work.

Now we've got a massive gap between what they want and what's available. Only a third – 100,000 – of new jobs created last year went to British-born workers. School leavers need to compete equally against young, well-qualified competitors from other EU countries. Which means a massive change in mindset, and I doubt that being able to recite a list of Tudor kings and queens will be much use on that score. Mr Gove should work with kids to shape their unrealistic aspirations into something employable.

Secondary education must reinforce the basics, but also cater for the majority: pupils who won't be attending university. The removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance will affect the number of poorer kids staying into the sixth form. It's no good moaning (as one columnist did) that they should "get a Saturday job". With the recession, there's massive competition for any work.

The Prince's Trust and the RBS produced a study which estimates that the vast number of unemployed under-25s cost the Government £155m a week in benefits and lost productivity. I know plenty of bright, personable school leavers who are reduced to working for nothing. They should be learning more practical skills, funded by a government grant which replaces the EMA. The focus of education must be matching dreams to reality – and stretching each child to achieve their best. History and science won't do that.

Is this the only way to express yourself?

I've derided Venus Williams's weird idea of fashion in the past, but having read Andre Agassi's astonishing autobiography I feel more sympathetic to her mindset.

Venus, still ranked at five in the world at the age of 30, attracted ridicule last week when she played a gruelling three-hour match at the Australian Open wearing flesh-coloured pants under a dress with a yellow top, a lattice-work midriff and a brightly printed skirt. The player claimed she was inspired by Alice in Wonderland – sadly, critics thought she looked like a cheese and onion slice or an apple pie. Both Agassi and Venus were ruthlessly trained by their fathers from a young age and programmed to spend all their time competing. Agassi explains why he wore those horrible shredded denim shorts, the ludicrous jewellery and the mullet hair. It was the only way he could think of to express himself. He had to do all his growing up on the court.

Venus is exactly the same, and after years of playing at such a high level her body must be really feeling the pain. She must be desperate to find another career – but I don't think it will be in fashion.

Not sweet on the Candy eyesore

Proof that money doesn't necessarily buy good taste, the flashy apartment block unveiled at a glitzy party in Knightsbridge last week will win no architectural awards. The grandly named Number One Hyde Park is the latest luxury project from the audacious Candy brothers, who got into so much bother with the Prince of Charles over their plans for the development of Chelsea Barracks. In person Nick and Christian Candy are charming company, but is this building, as they claim, "an iconic landmark"?

Sadly, their architect has let them down; it looks like an office block. This is a very noisy site, straddling Knightsbridge and Hyde Park. Who will want to sit on a balcony facing Harvey Nichols? Maybe only Patsy and Eddie from Ab Fab.

Nice way to waste money

More than 300 council workers in West Oxfordshire (where Mr Cameron lives and is the local MP) have been ordered to attend lessons for an hour each month on how to be nicer to each other. To show just who they don't get on with, they have to move pebbles around in the "Even Better Place to Work" lessons – which must constitute a light load for the refuse collectors and street cleaners taking part.

The council's chief executive claims that these classes will raise morale and the £30,000 exercise is "a small investment to support staff". Shame he's just made £755,000 worth of cuts to public services. Perhaps workers could bring their own pebbles next month.