Please, sir, how do you thread a needle?: Schools are turning out impractical pupils unable to do basic domestic tasks, says Susan Elkin

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The Independent Online
IF YOU can thread a needle, cut out this article with a pair of scissors, or adjust a nut with a spanner, then you are going to have a comprehension problem. Your long- practised adeptness means you do these ordinary things unthinkingly. How can you conceive of anyone else not being able to do them?

That, in a nutshell, is where the planners of school curriculums in practical subjects have gone wrong. To the sort of adults who devise syllabuses for schools, the handling of everyday tools is so basic that they tend to take it for granted, as if it were inborn. It is not. Like reading and counting it has to be taught and learnt.

In an ideal world we learn these things at home. My mother and grandmother taught me elementary sewing and cooking in the Fifties. My sister and I also learnt from both our parents a bit about decorating - how to handle a paintbrush and so on - as well as how to mend a fuse, change a plug and wield screwdrivers and hammers. Much of it was later casually reinforced at primary school and at Brownies.

My husband boasts that he can darn a sock (he learnt in the Cubs) and he, too, uses the casual practical skills he was taught by his parents and at school every day of his life around the home. I am not talking about advanced DIY: you do not need to be a dressmaker to repair an undone hem or a carpenter to refix a wall bracket, but you do need to be able to thread a needle and turn a screwdriver.

Perhaps we were lucky. But even if we had been disadvantaged by our homes, our schools would have rectified it. There was a bit of needlework, cookery, woodwork and/ or metalwork in the education of nearly every child. Even the grammar schools generally offered a year or two.

Not any more. In the past decade, hands-on skills teaching in schools has been largely sacrificed on the vague, well-meaning altar of 'technology'. The old separate subjects such as cookery, woodwork, needlework, metalwork et al have been scooped into one amorphous - and often poor quality - melting pot. Oddly, in some schools it even includes music.

This sloppy and, in practical terms, often useless generality is largely taught by former specialists who have little or no expertise (or interest) in nine-tenths of the subject they are teaching.

Former home economics teachers were not usually renowned for their prowess with a saw or pottery teachers for their skill with an oxyacetylene welder. The emphasis is on 'design' and, it has to be said, some children have become rather good at this because they get plenty of practice. But a far larger number lack the skills to 'realise' or to carry out their own designs, which makes the whole cumbersome mish-mash pretty unsatisfying.

After all, in adult life how many of us spend much time designing things? Would it not be more realistic to teach children 'doing' skills and train the designers later?

Thousands of children, teenagers and young adults are now, in effect, disabled by their practical ineptitude. A school caretaker and competent handyman in his fifties who works in a boys' school recently expressed his concern. He had observed that many 14- and 15-year-olds in 'his' school do not even know how to hold a hammer. 'How will they manage when they've got homes of their own?' he asked me.

Of course, there are still those who acquire these skills at home, but as the years go by there are fewer adults with the skills to pass to their children - even if they see the need to do it. In a vain attempt to smarten up the wearing of school uniform at a girls' school last year, I asked a 15-year- old to sew a button on her cuff that evening. She looked at me aghast: 'I can't do nothing like that,' she said. In response to my tactful 'Well, perhaps your mother might . . .' she said, 'No, don't worry, Miss, she's gonna get me a new blouse when she's been paid at the end of the week.'

Neither is the problem confined to deprived children. A textiles teacher in an exclusive independent school told me the other day that her students also lack basic skills - for all the same reasons. She now teaches an intensive 'survival skills' course in an attempt to counteract this trend.

In the light of all this I am not in the least surprised by the recent report, Technology Teachers: Getting It Right by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of the University of Manchester, which confirms that technology in schools is in a muddle. In particular, it bemoans the demise of traditional home economics teaching, arguing that future generations will lack basic cookery skills and nutritional knowledge.

It is sometimes argued that today you have a choice - with food, clothing or even furniture: you can buy it ready-made or make your own. But only if you have plenty of money. To buy a finished product, whether it is a pie or a pair of trousers will always cost more than making it. If your education has, for whatever reason, failed to teach you simple manufacturing and/or maintenance and repair skills then you are denied that choice. Is condemnation to a lifetime of avoidable expenditure really a sensible way to raise our young people?

Those who pontificate about the need to turn young people into 'designers' for the 'age of technology' really ought to get out into schools and meet all those 11-year-olds who are arriving at secondary school - especially in inner-city areas - unable to thread a needle or use scissors, and ask themselves just where the poor despairing 'technology' teacher is supposed to begin. It might not have been quite what John Major meant by 'back to basics' but it should not be overlooked.

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