Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Mark Ellse: Labourer Jason faces a long stretch. Imprisoned in school until he is 18


A recent graduate was telling me about his temporary job with a building firm. For the first time in his life he is working alongside men of a much wider range of ability than at any other time in life. He was telling me about his dealings with Jason, the labourer. Jason is not fast but he plods on. If you want a pile of bricks moving from A to B, Jason will stick at it all day. But, if there is a way that the job can be done wrong, Jason will find it and, as a result, Jason needs close supervision.

Recently, Jason was involved in patching a worn area of floor in a refurbishment project. He mucked in with carting around the tools and the sacks of material and watched while the plasterer mixed and applied the latex levelling compound. The following morning Jason was given a scraper and instructions to clean up, scraping up splashes from the mixing area and from around the repair.

It was a little longer than expected when Jason reappeared and the plasterer popped back to check. Sure enough the area was clean and tidy. The mixing area was clean; the splashes around the repair were gone. Also gone was all the levelling compound that had been applied the previous day. Jason may have misinterpreted his task but he had still stuck to it: every bit of levelling compound that had been applied the previous day had been removed meticulously.

It is difficult to know how to write honestly and yet kindly about the Jasons of this world. They are mostly men, of course – the wider male ability spread produces more geniuses and more with limited ability. Traditionally, many end up in the building trade. Some develop skills: if they can paint, they will paint all day, as a painter’s mate, working alongside someone who directs them closely. But in general their days are numbered. The unskilled labourer like Jason is being rapidly displaced by much more cost-effective imported labour. And yet those of us in education have to prepare the Jasons of this world for life.

There is this completely mad myth that, somehow, the education system is failing the Jasons of this world. Successive generations of Secretaries of State, who have never worked alongside a Jason, never employed a Jason, certainly never taught a Jason, probably never even spoken to a Jason, somehow believe that ‘if only school teachers did their job properly’ then no-one would ever leave school with such low abilities as Jason has.

The Jasons of this world have poor skills in reading and arithmetic. Secretaries of State believe that, if these skills are poor, let’s keep them at school longer – from 14 to 15, to 16 and now to 18. If what schools have been doing hasn’t worked, let’s do more of it!

And now we have the ultimate madness – the English Baccalaureate. A Secretary of State, with virtually no experience in employing anyone, let alone a Jason, whose only experience of the world was writing about it, had the marvellous idea that every school would be judged on how well its pupils performed not only in English and arithmetic, but also  in the core academic subjects of science, history/geography and a language. And so every Jason is being forced to study subjects that are totally irrelevant to his life. No metalwork, no woodwork, of course. These subjects were abolished by another Conservative politician a few decades ago when they nationalised the school curriculum.

At last a voice of someone whom no-one could accuse of being an educational softie is challenging the policy. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has told the Times Educational Supplement that the EBacc policy will be a ‘problem’ for some young people. He questioned whether the EBac ‘would properly prepare every student for education after GCSEs, particularly those who wanted to undertake an apprenticeship.’

Masterly understatement, of course. As successive governments of all political shades have demonstrated, the most effective way of damaging the educational system is to have unrealistic expectations of what education can do, to subject it to state control, and to get the whole system to tilt at windmills instead of letting schools serve the obvious needs of their pupils.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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