John Walsh: Every subject is worthy of study at school – especially nailcare and horses

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The Independent Online

The current kerfuffle about "academic" and "non-academic" school subjects – on the difference between "proper" subjects like History and Maths and "soft" or "vocational" ones that lead only to "Mickey Mouse qualifications" – seems hopelessly misguided. Whatever the value or otherwise of their appearance on school league tables, vocational subjects shouldn't be casually dismissed by traditionalists. I want to make the case that almost all subjects (with the usual proviso about incest and folk dancing) are worthy of the concentrated attention of schoolchildren.

We're talking here about 14- to 16-year-olds, not older, serious scholars who need to focus every quivering strand of their intellects on A-levels or degree courses. For 14-year-olds to choose to study anything is a bloody miracle. If they immerse themselves in Tourism or Goat Husbandry for a few years, it doesn't mean they're wasting their time, or heading towards a rubbishy career. They are (we hope) flexing newfound powers of intellectual focus and concentration; they can always study the more classic subjects alongside the lighter alternatives; and whatever they study might act as a gateway into other, perhaps more serious, areas of inquiry after they're 16.

I think we don't appreciate what these allegedly rubbish subjects entail. A Level 2 Diploma in Horse Care does not mean the child spends two years doing nothing more than curry-combing, attending gymkhanas and collecting My Little Pony dolls. The City & Guilds course offers a firm grounding in horse anatomy, digestion and behaviour, plus stable management and learning to identify poisonous plants that grow in meadows frequented by horses. This is trivial? This is like the first year of a Veterinary Science degree with subsidiary courses in Animal Psychology and Scary Botany.

Or take the Level 2 Certificate in Nail Technology (tee-hee!) which has caused such hilarity. For this qualification, your mutinous teenager will do a lot more than buy Vintage Vamp varnish in MAC, gossip in nail bars or learn to use a file while chatting on the phone. On the contrary, she (I'm picturing a she) will become fully briefed on the history and culture of personal adornment, skin disease, nail disorder, cuticle trauma and salon management.

You call it the Chav's Certificate. I see it as a pre-A-level education in Epidermal Studies and Interpersonal Psychology.

A boy I know, aged 14 and at public school in Dorset, has just been offered the choice of doing a GCSE in either Greek Civilisation or PE. I confess I'm in two minds about this. The latter will involve him in studying applied human anatomy and physiology, nutrition and health – interesting, worthwhile areas of study.

The former will hurl the child into a reeking cesspit of venality: 1,300 years of colonialism, slavery, multiple god-worship and much sexual jiggery-pokery at the hands of elderly philosophers. To which would you more happily subject your child?

A prophylactic without honour

When the ANC celebrated its centenary in South Africa last month, 1.35m condoms were given away free as part of the Treatment Action Campaign, a leading Aids charity. It wasn't long before panic-stricken ANC members reported that the condoms had burst while in action, leaving their owners terrified of infection. The whole batch was called in and water poured into several condoms, which reportedly "leaked like a sieve".

What had gone wrong? I have no evidence. I merely refer you to Stephen Pile's The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures, which tells how the Society for Family Health in Johannesburg in 1999 distributed thousands of leaflets in English, Zulu and Afrikaans, warning recipients against unprotected sex and enclosing a free condom. Unfortunately, all the condoms had been attached to the leaflets with a staple gun...