Janet Street-Porter: Lessons in life are important too

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It would be easy (and snobbish) to sneer at the latest batch of diploma subjects for secondary school students announced by the Government this week, which includes hair and beauty and hospitality. Seminars in how to deal with difficult customers and lessons in all the different ways of styling hair may not seem the kind of text-book based stuff previous generations focused on, but these are practical skills which will ensure a job, and, hopefully reconnect a group of hard-to-reach young people to the learning process in a way they can relate to.

There's a strong chance that raising the school leaving age to 17 could result in more truancy and classroom disruption unless the secondary school curriculum is re-designed to cater for all students, not just those who are academic and good at passing exams. The Government's new diplomas, which pupils aged 14 and up will start getting to grips with this month, are a welcome step in the right direction.

The first batch of subjects – creative and media, information technology, engineering, construction and the built environment, and society and health, have been devised to develop a core of skills attractive to employers and colleges of higher education. The scope and coursework for these diplomas, which can be taken at three different levels – foundation, higher and advanced – have been arrived at after discussions with industry practitioners. I hope that means that potential students are taught what working in the real world is all about. That must include not just basic English and maths, but a decent ability to communicate and hold a conversation. Many of the people who will be attracted to these diplomas communicate in text-speak, spend hours on the computer, and never read a book. Their experience of the world is confined to their own gang or peer group. In short, they are not attractive to employers because they don't see the need to communicate outside their own generation.

This week the next tranche of subjects (starting in September 2009) was announced, in business, environment and land-based studies, hair and beauty, manufacturing and product design, and administration and finance. By 2010 proposed subjects will include public services, retail, sport and active leisure, and travel and tourism. All courses include some level of practical work experience, helpful in preparing young people for the discipline of holding down a regular job.

The only problem I have with diplomas is a niggling worry that students may end up being taught to focus too narrowly. Great that they are going to learn practical skills in the building trade for example, but realistically they will also need to be able to read plans, set out their ideas, compute and understand bills and the costing process.

Undoubtedly the diploma in media studies will appeal to a generation hooked on the internet and celebrity culture. Technical skills like editing and lay-out are easy to learn. What's more difficult is to instill an understanding of tone, agenda, news management and ethics, and even if you know the history of reality telly off pat, you will still be virtually unemployable in an industry constantly looking for new ideas and ways of expressing them. In short, teachers constantly need to find ways to encourage more input from a diverse range of sources, and to broaden students' experiences.

Diplomas in practical subjects should not be a cop-out. They must be as inventive and challenging as academic subjects, otherwise they will deliver a generation that might be OK at making a sandwich but is useless at thinking more creatively. And that's what Britain is good at.

* Selena Scott makes me turn for the remote. Nothing to do with whether she's 57 or 27, I loathe her slightly superior delivery and lack of empathy. Sorry, Selena, but Five didn't pass over you as stand-in for Natasha Kaplinsky because of your age, but more likely because you have the charisma of a damp flannel. As for women in telly who whinge about discrimination, I might be a pensioner, but I don't have any trouble whatsoever getting on the box. Selena manages to sound hard done by every time she gives an interview. You're better off rearing your goats back in Yorkshire, love. At least they don't answer back.

Why Rufus deserves an encore

Rufus Wainwright has one of the biggest egos in the business, which can make him rather insufferable. But I warmed to the singer-songwriter when I heard that he'd been snubbed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York for refusing to translate the opera he had been commissioned to write for them from French into English. He has taken the piece elsewhere, and it will now premiere in Manchester in July 2009.

Hoorah! The Met claim that singing in French presents an "impediment" to how the piece will be enjoyed. Utter bilge. I've sat through some horrible translations of French and Italian operas at the ENO, when even the banal English version of a libretto can be utterly unintelligible.

Surtitles mean that an opera can be sung in any language, so what's the Met's problem? Are New York audiences really that timid and conservative?

French is a fabulously seductive language for singers, and Rufus is right.

* Sarah Palin's sleek appearance at the Republican Party Convention is a far cry from the homespun outfits she normally sports back home in Alaska, where chilly temperatures dictate an all-weather jacket is most suitable for public events.

You can tell the spin doctors had been hard at work last week coming up with the sleek black suit and crisply tailored jacket that Sarah wore for her "unveiling ceremony". Meanwhile the gold princess frock worn by Cindy McCain on the podium this week might play well with conservative delegates but out here in the real world it represents a total fashion disaster. Cindy now looks more like a human-sized Barbie than the restyled Sarah, and that's saying something.

Luckily, unreconstructed Sarah, pictured left, can be seen in clips on YouTube, addressing the Alaskan Independence Party earlier this year, wearing a blue nylon anorak teamed with the unlikely combination of a green scarf and chunky green and gold beads. Of course appearance isn't everything, but the subliminal message both women are sending to potential voters this week is firmly retrograde: Cindy, the stoic wife, seems rooted in the era of Doris Day, while Sarah, with that cottage loaf hair and hard-edged tailoring, comes across as a modern-day Lucille Ball.

The American political parties still treat women as grown-up dolls rather than fully rounded human beings, believing that other women will vote based on what these females are wearing. Even Michelle Obama has had all her sassy individuality airbrushed out. Depressing. Meanwhile, a spoof ditty, "The Ballad of Sarah Palin", is well worth a look on YouTube.

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