Editor-At-Large: University is no place for kids who need skills

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The Independent Online

When 97 per cent of boys and 98 per cent of girls gain A-level passes (and more than a quarter receive an A grade), the argument about standards is over. The A-level is thoroughly debased.

That's not to say that this year's students didn't work hard, because they did. These results prove that young people have become very good at one thing – passing A-levels. But whether that proves they are educated in a well-rounded way is another matter. The A-level subjects on offer, and the way students are asked to present their work, can be highly suspect.

Take writing essays and presenting projects, which can account for a large block of marks. The internet makes the gathering and assembling of information a doddle. You can cut and paste and come up with a passable essay in your chosen subject without much effort. It doesn't actually mean you have a detailed grasp of the reasoning behind, or the context of, the information you are stringing together. It doesn't mean you can even put two sentences together in a real conversation.

In my day, we studied old exam papers and mimicked high-scoring answers parrot-fashion, so in some respects we weren't much better. The real difference lay in how we were taught. There was more conversation in the classroom, more debate and argument. Nowadays, some schools allow pupils to use iPods during study periods, for goodness sake. Are we that afraid of making the business of learning and acquiring knowledge too unpalatable for the texting and social-networking generation? Can't they be separated from their gadgets for a few hours of the day without infringing their human rights? Apparently not.

This government made "education for all" its mantra, but what kind of education? Computers have replaced books, and screens have replaced social interaction and debate. Ministers seem obsessed with targets and, consequently, state schools tend to steer pupils in the direction of subjects that are easier to pass – ensuring that the place of learning, rather than its pupils, is seen to be performing well.

Just to give you an idea of the sheer banality of some courses, a friend's daughter has taken a GCSE in business studies and yet she has no idea how to open a bank account or what a National Insurance number is. That just about sums up trendy New Labour: come up with some groovy-sounding subjects that will appeal to the not-so-bright boys and girls, such as media studies, expressive arts, food technology and critical thinking, and make sure enough of them get passes to enable us to claim our education policies are successful. I have yet to employ anyone with a degree in media studies. It is a completely redundant subject.

So many people have A grades that a new addition, the "extended project", which includes writing a dissertation or completing research on a chosen subject, has been added as an optional extra to impress universities faced with a blizzard of A grades. Even so, only 5,000 students opted to do this. Our A-levels shouldn't be tinkered around with any more, they should be laid to rest. Smart kids will do well anyway. The current system cheats the average kids, awarding them inflated marks and falsely boosting their egos while denying them the hard-core material needed to function in the world of work.

It's a shame so many people can't get into university, having been led to believe that the right A-level grades would enable them to do so. But in the end, would it not be better to introduce the International Baccalaureate instead of A-levels?That means studying a rounded selection of subjects in depth, providing a far better measure for universities. I don't believe that a university degree is necessary to succeed. I don't have one and I've run plenty of big organisations. What's more important is to devise a way of ensuring that all kids are numerate and literate by the time they are 16. Then spend two years teaching them practical skills in depth.

Only the academic and the gifted should bother with university. It's a complete waste of time for most people, and it's outrageous to pretend otherwise.

Paradise lost: The holiday heaven that flogs its women

I hope you weren't considering Malaysia as a holiday option – because in the next few days the country will make history by flogging a woman for drinking alcohol. Her "crime": consuming a single can of beer in a hotel nightclub last year.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno committed this crime in a region controlled by the hard-line Pan-Malaysian Islamic party. This is a party that insists men and women stand separately when queuing in supermarkets, and beaches are now also segregated.

Under sharia, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno might have expected a three-year prison sentence as well as the caning, but normally offenders are simply fined. Now she faces six lashes away from the public gaze.

The authorities claim the punishment will be administered by a female prison officer, and they say the cane is lighter than the one used to flog men.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, another country in which sharia is in place, a woman is facing 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public and so contravening the strict decency laws. Why do so many female tourists from the West visit countries where sharia is so strictly enforced?

Oh Duncan, do stop twittering on ...

Duncan Bannatyne is one of the sad folk I wrote about last week committed to enlightening us all with the minutiae of their lives by endlessly sending out messages on Twitter. His giant ego has proved his undoing, however.

"Dunk" has been filming a series about British holiday resorts for Virgin, urging us to rediscover the joys of Blighty. Meanwhile, he's been whingeing on Twitter about missing the sun back at his luxury villa in the South of France. When confronted about this apparent contradiction, Bannatyne said: "I'm giving up my free time to help people promote their businesses ... I love the UK, but I love other places too." You can bet that Duncan is being paid to appear in the series, so it's hardly an act of charity. More like a smart move to ensure he remains on British telly as much as possible.

Summer wildlife on the attack

I spent two days at the British seaside myself last week – wearing a waterproof jacket. The highlight of my trip to Northumberland was the picnic under an umbrella, wearing the matching waterproof trousers. The food stank of the anti-midge spray I had to apply. The temperature barely reached 16C. Suddenly, I had a lot more sympathy for Duncan Bannatyne.

On the other hand, while holidaymakers swimming in the Med this summer might get more sun, they've got unwanted guests – jellyfish, which can inflict a painful sting. Some resorts in Spain have been scooping up the slimy blighters by the ton and processing them into fertiliser. In Italy they've a more novel solution: Chinese restaurants in Tuscany have been serving deep-fried local jellyfish. They could rival whelks in Southend before long.

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