Editor-At-Large: Teach our kids a useful trade or two


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The Independent Online

Easily the most unpleasant experience of my teenage years was sitting in a room with a sheet of questions that had to be answered in a set time.

For a rebel, O-levels marked the ultimate challenge. My grades didn't reflect my ability, but a lack of revision, and yet I think that system was fairer than GCSEs, which Michael Gove wants to scrap. It's a bit rich that expensively educated MPs like Nick Clegg are outraged, complaining that any reforms will lead to a "two-tier system" in secondary education. Children aren't all the same, and to pretend that they can all be winners at one kind of exam is denying reality. The current system is not fit for purpose. Recently two-thirds of employers surveyed by the CBI complained that a large number of school-leavers do not have the skills to enter the workforce. Simply, they have no idea of timekeeping, can't write properly and are innumerate. The UK is bottom of the language proficiency league in Europe.

Research by the EU indicates that low-skilled jobs will fall by 50 per cent this decade, while medium- and high-skilled jobs will rise by 16 to 21 per cent. A report by the World Literacy Foundation found that one in five UK adults is "functionally" illiterate. It's not hard to see why Michael Gove has decided that the current exam system isn't delivering results employers need.

Where I disagree with Mr Gove is the introduction of CSEs for less able pupils. All children should sit one mandatory exam in English and maths. In the Third World, kids study by rote. They are determined to acquire these vital skills because it is their only path out of poverty. Our kids are allowed far too much freedom of expression.

Literacy gives kids dignity and a sense of purpose. It's a fundamental right that this government and its predecessors have failed to deliver for all their high falutin' talk of increased social mobility. We pretend that by lumping kids of different intellectual levels together that the least able will succeed. Instead of GCSEs for less academic pupils, we need more apprenticeship schemes, and courses starting at 13 in trades such as building, electrical engineering and plumbing, all highly lucrative and valued careers. MPs such as Mr Clegg should declare they'd like their children to repair cars, build boats and study catering, instead of sending them to university. They should inspire by example. A leading educationalist has said that one in five pupils "learn nothing" from the age of 11, so Mr Gove is right to insist on higher standards, but he mustn't ignore the need to teach technical skills.

Slug bonanza

I'm writing this in North Yorkshire, where it has rained solidly for 48 hours. The wind is howling, and the river at the bottom of my garden is a raging brown torrent, rising by the hour – it's almost reached the top of the bank. I can't watch the weather reports on the television, because I know what's coming next. More rain. I loathe the chirpy voice of the weather girl on Radio 4 delivering the bad news. In fact, I'd like to throttle her. According to the British Horticultural Society, the mild winter and wet summer have produced ideal breeding conditions for slugs and snails; numbers are up 50 per cent. The postman has just delivered my order of Slug Wool, a fiendishly clever product which has turned waste wool into scratchy pellets the slimy enemies can't slide over. I need to go and put it around my gorgeous cabbages, but it's too stormy. My broad beans are broken and battered. I'm glad I've shared this with you, I feel a little bit better. But not much.

Ignored hero

Yesterday was the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the man who invented the modern computer. Turing was a brilliant mathematician, whose work during the Second World War helped to unlock German codes, saving thousands of British lives and shortening the conflict by up to two years. Instead of receiving accolades, Turing was hounded for his homosexuality, and charged with gross indecency. Rather than face a custodial sentence, he opted for chemical castration and was found dead a year later. The coroner delivered a verdict of suicide. His work is celebrated in an engrossing exhibition at the Science Museum (reviewed on page 57) and this weekend a conference at Manchester University celebrates his achievements. Yesterday, at another event in Oxford, Turing expert Jack Copeland disputed the theory that Turing was an unhappy man who committed suicide by taking cyanide, suggesting instead that it was a sloppy mistake. Whatever the truth, hasn't the time come for Turing to be honoured? This genius isn't even one of the BBC's "Modern Elizabethans" – a ludicrous list of 50 people who have made a difference during the Queen's 60 years on the throne. But if it hadn't been for Turing, Her Majesty might not have had a country to reign over.

Price of peace

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has left the UK after a nine-day speaking tour entitled Stand Up and Be the Change, during which he met Prince Charles and gave an address at Westminster Abbey. At a youth event in Manchester, the spiritual leader was introduced by an excited Russell Brand who waffled: "He is intense and sort of mellow, which is what you expect of someone who meditates five times a day." The ever-smiling Dalai Lama continues his global tour, addressing the faithful in Milan later this week. The city was going to give him honorary citizenship, but it revoked the offer for fear of offending China, who will be playing a big part at the giant trade fair expo in Milan in 2015. Many Italians are mortified. Rome and Venice have already bestowed honorary citizenship on the holy man, but the home of Italian couture has realised it can't afford to lose millions of euros of valuable exports in the name of world peace. Michael Stipe, Jarvis Cocker, Stella McCartney and Tilda Swinton participate in a short film shot by Rankin urging us to work together for world peace. I'm sure that will make a lot of difference.

Fabulous Victor

The actor Victor Spinetti, who died last week aged 82, was a fabulously outrageous character. We met in 1973, when the ICA asked me to put on an event that would attract a wider audience to its galleries in the Mall. The Body show took place over two days, and consisted of an exhibition underneath a giant inflatable female body designed by Piers Gough, and a fashion show in a boxing ring. Joan Littlewood decided to stage a version at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East on a Sunday night, with Victor as a Cabaret-style master of ceremonies. It was a sell-out, although Joan sent me a sad postcard to say she'd only just broken even. Victor was superb company. He appeared in the first two Beatles' films, A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and became a close friend of John Lennon, who must have appreciated his filthy humour. His brief appearance as a hotel clerk in the Return of the Pink Panther is a gem. Another Great Briton ignored by the BBC.