Sweeping up those children bored by school

We believe wrongly that everyone who is clever must go to university and everyone who's not must acquire a skill
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The Independent Online

'What do you think," the hairdresser asked me the other day, "of our Lithuanian girls?" I replied: "They seem lovely. Friendly, bright, engaged ..."

'What do you think," the hairdresser asked me the other day, "of our Lithuanian girls?" I replied: "They seem lovely. Friendly, bright, engaged ..."

The hairdresser agreed, with some satisfaction, that indeed they were. For him, they were the solution to a problem that had been growing for years. This hairdresser has been running the same salon since the 1960s. Since he started out, he had found his employees at the local Job Centre, or the Employment Exchange as it used to be called back then.

The trouble was that gradually the quality of the young girls he had been recruiting, to make tea for the customers, keep things tidy, help out here and there, and perhaps, if they wanted to, start training as hairdressers, had been in terminal decline.

Finally it got to the stage where the girls were so droopy, so passive, so rude and so lazy that he no longer knew what to do. At last one of his customers spotted his predicament, and advised him that in her country able and keen young women would jump at the chance to come over here for such work. So now, at this salon, it is in Lithuania that the meeters, greeters and haircutting sweepers are recruited.

This may sound like an anecdote that straightforwardly illustrates the declining mores and manners of Young People In Britain Today. Yet the fact that the sort of girls who wanted to work in a Chelsea hairdressers' 40 years ago were more polite, more motivated, and better educated than today's crop is not actually entirely surprising.

The 1960s in so many ways, were a fabulous moment in history for employing top-quality women at rock-bottom prices. Education and career opportunities were only beginning to expand, so even the cleverest and most well-brought up of working-class girls were leaving school at 16 and looking for pin-money jobs for the time until marriage and family beckoned.

In 1980, when I left school, friends with dazzling O-grade results had left school at 16, snapped up by banks or offices despite recession.

And the stupidest and most badly brought up? Until the late Seventies even they could make a decent wage in a factory, where their lack of sink-side manner was not a problem. In comparison, now these jobs are less common and the pay is less, because even if they are still sited here, the manufacturers are competing with similar products made by cheap overseas labour.

All this was true, of course, for boys as well as girls, although perhaps to a lesser extent. People talk of how standards have declined in recent decades. But even in the Seventies, the pub outside the gates of my town's biggest employer was brazenly and officially titled the Cleekim Inn, a reference to the fact that most of the hostelry's customers were men whose friends had punched their time-clocks for them while they carried on drinking instead of doing their shift.

It may be new to call them "Chavs", but mickey-taking layabouts who spoil things for everyone have been around for a long time. It feels like there are more of them now, but it is possible that they are simply more visible because of cultural and economic shifts, or even, unbelievably, more influential - particularly in the playground.

What can't be denied, though, in the rush to sweep all those who can pass a GCSE into higher education, and to move all possible low-paid factory work abroad, the pool of girls leaving school at 16 and fancying a few years labouring on the periphery of hairdressing, has shrunk.

Polite, affable British girls can do better for themselves than hair- sweeping, in London anyway, while judging for the "skills shortage", polite, affable boys can do better than handing the screwdriver up to the electrician, or making tea and sweeping up shavings for the carpenter. Or so the perception goes anyway. Actually, a clever, talented hair- dresser can work her own hours and name her own price, as can a bright and gifted electrician or carpenter. It is just that the tendency is not to consider this to be high-status, high-paid work.

This is perhaps why, as the debate about top-up fees raged, no one questioned that those training on modern apprenticeships should, far from getting loans, be paid £40 a week at the age of 16 as they trained for qualifications that might see them earning a mint but without need for repayment of loans.

This may also explain why modern apprenticeships are one of this Government's success stories. This year 230,000 16 to 23-year-olds signed up for on-the-job training, and next month Ivan Lewis, from the Department for Education and Skills, will announce the introduction of junior apprenticeships. Under this scheme children as young as 14 will be able to opt for two days a week at work, one day at college and two days in school.

For those who idealise childhood, this may seem like a retrograde step. After all, it was not so very long ago that the left was campaigning for the school-leaving age to be increased from 14, first to 15 and then to 16. But this, I can't help feeling, will make a good compromise, giving another option to children bored by school before they start concentrating all their energy and motivation on appearing to have no energy or motivation.

Something, after all, must be done. At present, after all, we have a school drop-out rate unrivalled in the developed world.

For some, it will be seen as a discriminatory move, pushing the less aspirational children into vocational work at far too early an age. Really though, this is nonsense, a reflection of a pernicious attitude that is part of the problem. Somehow, the idea is nowadays that you are either a graduate, or you are thick.

No wonder children become discouraged at school so early on. What they need to know is that there is a middle ground, where practical common sense, and good organisational and people-skills, are as important as intelligence, and as conductive to a good living and community respect.

Instead, people have managed to come up with the idea that plumbers, hairdressers, electricians, and all sorts of artisan workers are somehow not terribly intelligent. They believe that everyone who is clever must go to university and everyone who is not must acquire a skill.

Actually, what we need is a lot more crossover. The skills gap is real, and it can be plugged to a good extent. But it cannot be plugged completely.

The move to a service economy in Britain does not necessarily suit the division of talents we offer as a population. The fact is that as more and more people go on to higher education, others cannot be expected indefinitely to move up and into the jobs that the clever members of the working class once did.

Sometimes people are so unskilled - even socially - that they can't even be employed to sweep up hair clippings and smile nicely at customers. Junior apprenticeships are a partial solution, but the idea that they will mop up the unintelligent is wrong.