Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fault Lines Opening Up All Around

It's time to talk to Josh about what next. This takes far less time than Max and I anticipate. Josh says he is not going back to school to re-sit his A-levels, nor is he going to go to the local FE college to do so.

"It's not as if I even want to go to university," he says. "I'm not cut out for academic crap, I have no patience with stupid teachers, and anyway you and Dad can't afford it. Plus I don't want all that debt."

Connie is infuriated, and keeps saying,"Crap? Crap?" while I try to reassure Josh that, however broke Max and I might be, we'd still manage it somehow, just like we've done for Connie. This sets Connie off again about why she has had to spend all summer working, just to raise the money she needs for next year.

Max keeps completely quiet throughout the whole discussion and all of a sudden it feels like the girls against the boys, or the university-educated against those who are of the University of Life school of thought.

It's not as if I'm actually in favour of everyone going to university anyway, despite what the boys may think. When I was at university, I was amongst only 6% of the population who went, and although I'm not suggesting that that was fair, I do seriously doubt that there's been a 44% increase in the number of truly academic kids who will either enjoy or get the best out of studying.

I'm not at all in favour of this stupid 50% target for university attendance as a result - I'd rather we also valued the contributions of engineers, carpenters and other skilled tradesmen. If Josh wanted to learn a trade skill, it is entirely possible that he might find this both more satisfying and lucrative than getting what could easily be - knowing Josh's lack of tolerance for academia - a poor degree in a made-up subject; after which he'd have to spend years trying to pay off his loans, while probably delivering pizzas for a living.

And yes, I know that was a non-PC thing to say, but I don't care. It's not as if sending so many more kids to university seems to have increased social mobility. No bloody wonder, when you take into account tuition fees and student loans. I am absolutely positive that they put off bright kids from poorer backgrounds, who are often quite terrified by the prospect of debt, in my experience.

I'm still cross about the reply I got from the Secretary of State when I wrote to him about this. In it, he claimed that no-one was that debt-averse these days, as everyone had mortgages. I wanted to suggest he ask his poorer constituents exactly how many of them had mortgages before he started jumping to conclusions like that, but I wimped out. He wasn't going to "get" it, no matter how many times I tried to explain to him - any more than most MPs would, especially those who make it to a seat in Cabinet.

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that the concept of being broke is a very moveable feast. For some people it means not being able to afford a second holiday, or to buy the Mulberry handbag they've fallen in love with, while for others it means that they've cleaned out all their pockets, searched down the back of the sofa, and still can't come up with enough money for a pint of milk. It's those in the latter group who are freaked out by even a hundred pounds of debt, let alone tens of thousands of pounds.

Anyway, getting back to the 50% target: my old college tutor occasionally takes me out to dinner, and spends the entire time moaning about how his smallest seminar group comprises 25 students, when there used to be a 3:1 ratio of students to staff in the good old days. He also says that he now has to teach to the lowest common denominator in the class - much to his frustration and that of the brighter members of the group.

In fact, he reckons that half of his students can't even spell when they arrive, and he rants on for hours about why the hell they've chosen to study English Literature, if they're so unfamiliar with the written word. Josh was once given detention for pointing out his English teacher's poor spelling, which she had clearly demonstrated in a short passage she had written on the board, so I find this all too easy to believe. (She's a friend of Annoying Ellen's, so spelling probably comes low down on her list of priorities, certainly behind getting laid and shoving coke up her nose.)

I'm getting sidetracked, and sounding like Mr Beales again - though hopefully slightly more rational. Back to the Bennett household. When I tell Josh that I think that academic study is not the be-all and end-all, and that we'll support him in whatever he decides to do, Connie goes ballistic, and reminds me that she still has another two years at university to go. Honestly, it's like walking on eggshells around here - or across the San Andreas fault.

In the end, the whole conversation becomes impossible to continue while both kids are in the same room. I am wriggling like a fish on a line, and Josh seems to take pity on me. He goes upstairs to indulge in hideous X-Box violence, probably virtually murdering a posse of sisters, or university students - while Connie stays downstairs with Max and me, looking through details of houses to rent.

She starts her internship next month, so time's getting short for her to sign the contracts on somewhere to live. Back in the Spring, Connie was one of only five interns - chosen from an international field of candidates - to be awarded a paid internship at a world-renowned research centre for the next academic year.

That's where her ability has got her, but now hard cash is coming into the equation. The interns have agreed to share a house, if they can find one in time - but whereas the others only seem worried about whether the houses have Sky or Virginmedia, and whether they're near a pub and a gym, Connie is desperately worried about how she's going to pay the deposit and first month's rent.

"Mum," she says. "Do you think I'm wasting my time with all this study, then?"

"No, of course I don't, Con," I say. "I am very proud of you."

"So why is it right for me, but a waste of time for Josh?" she says. "It's not as if he's stupid. Though he is a tosser. He did score two points higher than me on that bloody Big Intelligence Test, after all."

"Well, Con - I don't know," I say. "Max, you explain it."

There's no reply. Max has dozed off. Honestly, how can you sleep with family fault lines opening up in every direction? That's obviously a skill gleaned via the University of Life.


  1. Molly, Molly, Molly, an engineer is NOT a tradesman. He is a professional. The easiest route into engineering is through an engineering degree although it is still possible, if very time consuming, to become an engineer without having a degree. The knowledge required is at Honours level though.

    The man who mends the telivision or the washing machine is not an engineer, he is a technician as is the man who services your car.

  2. There in no doubt about it. You are becoming a Tory. There is light at the end of your tunnel. It time you started punting your CV around the Tory MPs.

  3. Do you know - when I typed that I thought "someone's going to complain that I have implied that an engineer is a tradesman" but I couldn't be bothered to change it, and anyway wanted to question the way in which we value differing skills ;-)

    I do agree with your central point, of course, though my grandfather was a successful aeronautical engineer and did not go to university. My (admittedly-botched) point was rather that it used to be possible to become very expert and knowledgeable in a specialist field without the need to jump through the numerous and often unrelated academic hoops which prove such a turn-off to some otherwise creative thinkers!

    Also can't resist mentioning that I think that your comment may have inadvertently proved my point that what we value these days is only that which is validated by a degree, and not by other technical, trade or other skills - if you don't mind my saying so ;-)

  4. Horshamite - no, don't say that! My grandfather would have a field day.

  5. You say:

    "When I was at university, I was amongst only 6% of the population who went, and although I'm not suggesting that that was fair, I do seriously doubt that there's been a 44% increase in . . . "

    Oh dear. From 4% to 50% isn't a 44% increase - it's a f*****g 1,250% increase!

    Words fail me.

    Gee - didn't you even get

  6. I think my eyes just spasmed in their sockets. Don't get me started on studentfuckingloans. All trying to get a degree got me was a huge amount of debt and a few stays in hospital after driving myself to mental breakdowns/overworking my pregnant body.

    Ooooh, I said don't get me started, and then I started. *zips lips*

    Tell Connie that the reason it's good for her but waste of time for Josh is that she wants to be there, cares, and will try. Josh very clearly won't. He doesn't want to be there, so he will fail. You can lead a horse to water... The drop-out rate for the first term of my degree course was almost 50%. And I did a 'cushy' made-up subject that people thought of as a soft option. Anyone can apply for and get into university (I did with similar grades to Josh) but staying there is the tricky bit. My husband worked through his a-levels and went straight into full time employment after school. He has more earning potential than my degree would have given me at his age.

  7. Molly, I entirely agree with your comment. However, did you miss my statement that (the non degree engineer's) knowledge is at honours degree level. Your Grandfather's knowledge would almost certainly have been at that level.

    It still is possible to become expert in many fields without having a degree but possibly it is more difficult to receive appropriate recognition unless one stands out.

    I could also have commented on the current lack of social mobility.

    I was a Grammar school boy, my best friend at Grammar school was a miner's son, and I mean a miner, not a mine manager. It seems to me, looking back, that in those days most working class fathers, and mothers, wanted their children to do better than they had done. They therefore encouraged their children to study and to try to get into grammer or technical schools, or equivalent. That seems to be missing these days.

    Of my generation quite a few middle class adults came from working class families and their children tended to rise higher still. These days it is not easy for an academic child from a poor family to get into an appropriate school and thus progress through the class system. Though few and far between, those with an inate ability can still make it to the very top though.

  8. Anonymous - go on, admit it - you KNEW exactly what I meant! This is a personal blog, not a statistical manual. And didn't I get what? The end of your sentence?! Come on - give me a break ;-)

    Arienette - I couldn't agree more, including your analysis of why university is right for Connie and possibly wrong for Josh. Wish I'd seen your comment earlier - I'd have quoted it, verbatim!

    Old Codger - I think I did get - and agreed with - your point about the non-degree engineer's knowledge being of honours standard, but I seem to have expressed myself badly in my reply. Apologies.

    And your story regarding your grammar school experience is exactly what I was trying to illustrate. My grandfather and father went to grammar schools, but I was the first in my family to take the next step and go to university. Ambition for one's kids to do better in order to escape was what drove both my parents and grandparents, and, as you say, that feeling seems to be sadly lacking in some quarters now.

    I'm not sure what the reasons for this are - whether it's that education is seen as irrelevant by those who might most benefit from it, or whether it is due to the culture in schools, or what. Young men/boys do seem to feel particularly and increasingly disaffected within the school system, and I wish there was an easy solution.

    I agree 100% (which I hope is the right percentage for my friend Anon) with your penultimate sentence, and wish it wasn't so.

  9. Hi Molly, No need to apologise. Perhaps I am not that bright after all.

    I don't know the reasons for the lack of social mobility either. The dumming down of education is only a small part but it has removed a social climing route for those from poor families who have ability and whose parents do care and wish them to do better then they did. The better off can either pay for private tuition or for housing close to the best schools. Many of the Labour heirarchy seemed to manage to get their children into some very good schools.

    Another probable factor is the lack of responsibility, everyone has rights but no one seems to have any responsibilities. Benefits appear to be a right and working for a living, amongst some at least, appears to be for someone else to do. The sort of jobs they might be able to get just don't pay as much as benefits so they consider benefits their right.

    When I was a kid single mothers, not unmarried but widowed by the war, would do almost anything (take in washing, cleaning, etc) to avoid becoming involved with "the social". Old folk also would struggle rather than ask for assistance. Both groups saw it as charity and both were too proud to acept charity. A bit of that attitude now plus a bit of ambition for themselves and their children would at least start to change things.

    I don't believe there is an easy solution since a real change of culture is required.

    Oh, I didn't go to university either. Was an apprentice and my initial wages were about 6% below my unavoidable outgoings. Getting my bike down from home reversed the deficit.