Edition 111

18 march 2011






I’m a great believer in vocational education and a great supporter of FE colleges. These institutions offer an impressive range of courses in vocational and academic subjects and huge numbers of students benefit enormously from their time spent at them…


If employers place a high value on workplace skills and young people are keen to be in work, then why aren’t we doing much more to provide job opportunities for this age group? And not just apprenticeships but any form of work.


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Who gets the best jobs? Toffs from public schools, of course, as we are constantly being reminded at the moment…


See Edition 110





I suggest we keep SATs, abolish GCSEs and persuade Michael Gove not to go ahead with his phonics test for six year olds…


See Edition 108 





I’m a great believer in vocational education and a great supporter of FE colleges. These institutions offer an impressive range of courses in vocational and academic subjects and huge numbers of students benefit enormously from their time spent at them. I’m pleased to see that Alison Wolf, in her recently published report on vocational education, recognises that our present system provides a great deal of high quality learning and training. She speaks of  “numerous examples of excellent practice and of institutions and qualifications that are highly respected”. These comments will come as no surprise to many people who have taken vocational courses in the past few decades.


The report is robustly argued and full of cogent analysis. But much more prominent than the references to high quality provision is the author’s exposure of serious shortcomings in the vocational sector. These include its complexity, its regulation, how  it is funded and the way it is constantly  being reorganised. Attention is drawn to the variability of standards, weaknesses in assessment and low levels of attainment in maths and English – “shocking figures” according to the report but in line with what some of us have been saying for years.  


I’m sure many of these shortcomings have been unhelpful to the delivery of  vocational courses but they’re not exactly earth-shattering. They could easily apply to every other sector of education. Talk to primary and secondary teachers about constant change and they will wax lyrical on the subject of perpetual tinkering with the curriculum. Talk to heads about regulations and they will tell you about a never-ending stream of them flowing across their desks.


Many of these problems go way beyond education, of course, and are endemic in our public services. They have crept into the system for all sorts of reasons amongst which is a widespread lack of common sense among our decision makers. The health service and local government have been particularly badly affected by reorganisation, complex regulations and elaborate funding arrangements. If Alison Wolf could use her very considerable powers of analysis to untangle, for example, the labyrinthine mechanisms of local government finance she would be doing the nation an even greater favour than she is doing at present.


Predictably, comments in the review about teenagers taking courses of dubious value have attracted the most attention from the media. According to the report too many young people are being short-changed with large numbers of them not on programmes which help them progress either educationally or in the labour market. It appears that at least one in five of each cohort receives very little benefit from our post-16 secondary education system. 


But is this really the case? I take the view that all learning has an intrinsic value and is therefore beneficial. It doesn’t necessarily have to lead to further studies or future employment. If there are young people taking an NVQ 2 in child care or carpentry, and if they are interested in these subjects and motivated to learn about them, they will not only be pursuing their interests they will also be acquiring extremely useful practical skills that will serve them well in their adult lives. I can’t see that studying vocational subjects which are not of immediate use is all that different from studying subjects at  A-level which are forgotten about as soon as the exams are over. 


As for the problem of “churn” I’m not unduly exercised by this phenomenon.  The term is used to describe the way young people move between college, employment and unemployment. We certainly need to put an end to anyone becoming a NEET – the well-known acronym for “not in education, employment or training” – but the fact that there are teenagers who can’t decide what course they want to do, or whether they want to go to college or get a job, doesn’t strike me as particularly alarmimg. As long as they don’t lie in bed all day or hang round on street corners they should be allowed to do a bit of churning. Most of us do a version of it at some stage in our lives.


One recurring theme in the report, and to my mind the most significant, is the importance of going to work in the real world. Skills learned in the workplace are greatly valued by employers and moreover, to quote directly from the text, “many of today’s teenagers, like those of preceding generations, do not want to remain in academic prograames; they want to be in work, treated as (and earning like) adults, even though they may well return to study later”.  


If employers place a high value on workplace skills and young people are keen to be in work, then why aren’t we doing much more to provide job opportunities for this age group? And not just apprenticeships but any form of work. Alison Wolf is very clear about the value of the workplace. Helping young people gain genuine work experience should be one of the highest priorities in the next few years, she says, and one of her recommendations is to that effect.


I would go much further. It seems to me we need a fundamental shift in our collective mind-set. Education and training should not be seen as the one true path for all young people to follow as it is at present. We should also be offering them an alternative route which takes them into proper paid employment if that is where they wish to go. Those who are attracted to this alternative should be supported and encouraged and provided with a learning credit that can be used later – as is proposed in the report. To inject some impetus into the practicalities of providing jobs for young school leavers substantial tax benefits should be given to employers who take othem on.


If we lower the school leaving age to fifteeen and support youngsters who want to make their way in the world at this age we are making a statement that this is the age when young people have to start thinking seriously about how they will earn a living. At the same time if we replace GCSEs with a school certificate at fifteen, all those who stay in education or training, who would still be the vast majority, could readily accept the idea that they were no longer pupils at school but young adults preparing for their future. We should then be looking to come up with a programme for the 15 to 18 phase that begins to equip all young people properly for the world of work as well as offering them other learning and life skills.


Such is my belief in the work ethic I’m almost inclined to think that before anyone goes off to university they should have a period of at least one year’s continuous paid employment, preferably in an unskilled job. It is essential that we instil a respect for learning in young people but it is equally essential to instil an understanding of the realities of earning a living.


Many students who take vocational courses at colleges of further education will go into fufilling jobs where they will use the practical skills they have acquired. These jobs are essential to the well-being and comfort of us all and for this reason should be held in equal, or higher esteem, than some of those for which academic qualifications are required.


There is no doubt that improvements can be made to the delivery of certain courses and Alison Wolf’s recommendations should be used to initiate some long overdue reforms. But let’s also be generous in our recognition of what is being provided at the moment and generous, too, in our recognition of the achievements of millions of students who have gained invaluable skills during their vocational training.


See notebook for Tick-box Tedium. 





I’m bound to say that I recognise many of Alison Wolf’s  comments from my own experience of teaching in a further education setting. For a number of years I taught and assessed teaching assistants at my local college. I spent hours and hours checking barrow loads of unnecessary paperwork that had been collected into portfolios when I could have been giving more useful  practical assistance. Many students following the  NVQ 2  had the astonishing total of 415 statements for which to find evidence of their performance and each of them required checking by me and signing off – in a tick-box.


The idea behind the assessment procedure was absolutely right. Students were required to demonstrate both their competence in practical situations when working with children and also a theoretical knowledge of what lay behind the work they were doing. Unfortunately the designers of the course were more interested in devising a huge quantity of  performance indicators rather than coming up with fewer indicators where quality could be demonstrated. As I said in a submission to the Training and Development Agency:


The gathering and organising of evidence is unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming. The reasons for the complexity are the excessive number of standards, the requirement for two pieces of performance evidence and the referencing system. Time spent on the organisational detail could be better spent in other ways – by candidates and assessors.


But despite the excessively complicated assessment procedure I’m fairly certain my students found the course useful. Most of them were good at organising their evidence on paper and the overwhelming majority were very good at their jobs – which is what mattered. Assembling all the evidence was a time-consuming distraction for the students and  checking it was a time-consuming distraction for me but I like to think this didn't have too much of an adverse effect.




Edition 112

15 April 2011






What will not be essential for their daily life or future employment is to be able to discuss the importance of Act II Sc ii in Romeo and Juliet or to examine the part played by obsession in Far From the Madding Crowd  - two eaxamples of the sort of questions that will be coming up shortly in GCSE exam papers…


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Whatever one’s views on the subject – and I’m in favour of keeping them – the tests are certainly challenging…


See below





I’m a great believer in vocational education and a great supporter of FE colleges. These institutions offer an impressive range of courses in vocational and academic subjects and huge numbers of students benefit enormously from their time spent at them…


If employers place a high value on workplace skills and young people are keen to be in work, then why aren’t we doing much more to provide job opportunities for this age group? And not just apprenticeships but any form of work.


See Edition 111





Who gets the best jobs? Toffs from public schools, of course, as we are constantly being reminded at the moment…


See Edition 110





A book that is highly relevant to the ongoing discussion about the future direction of primary education. What was the Plowden Report about? How successful were the methods of the Plowden era and should we return to them? Agree or disagree with its conclusions Plowden’s Progress offers an authentic perspective on primary schools before the national curriculum.




Should English Literature form part of the Ebac? Not surprisingly the answer is “yes” from  the National Association for the Teaching of English. And it’s a “yes” from Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English and education at King’s College, London. Excluding the subject from the Ebac was “ridiculous” she said.


I’m not a fan of the Ebac so for me the question is academic but it does at least focus attention on what should be the place of English Literature in the school curriculum as a whole. Fairly modest, in my view, at least until the age of 15 when a school-leaving certificate should be introduced to replace GCSEs. The overwhelming priority for all teachers must be English Language – reading and writing, particularly.


Pupils need to be able to read, and fully comprehend, a variety of material that conveys  information. This is an essential skill they require in their daily life and in their studies at school and it is one they will require in their future employment. If they also read for pleasure, whether fiction or non-fiction, so much the better.


They also need to be able to write fluently, clearly and grammatically using the written word to organise their thoughts and communicate them in an informative, interesting and readable way.


What will not be essential for their daily life or future employment is to be able to discuss the importance of Act II Sc ii in Romeo and Juliet or to examine the part played by obsession in Far From the Madding Crowd  - two eaxamples of the sort of questions that will be coming up shortly in GCSE exam papers. Nor will it be essential that they can dissect the books they read for pleasure in their adult lives. I’ve managed to read and enjoy Far From the Madding Crowd without being aware that obsession was one of its central themes and I don’t think my enjoyment and understanding of the book were diminished by my lack of awareness.


Literature has two gifts to offer. One is enjoyment and the other is the opportunity to reflect on different aspects of life. With  a novel or a play the enjoyment derives from sheer escapism – losing oneself in another world, a world of adventure, mystery or romance or simply a world inhabited by people similar to ourselves who are leading lives with which we can identify. With a poem the enjoyment comes from the emotional and intellectual response we have to the thoughts and ideas that have been crafted into a poetic form.


As well as the pleasure it brings literature can also be used to think about the way in which we lead our lives. A certain amount of textual study enables us to explore ideas about life in general and search for insights into the human condition. And I’m all in favour of that provided such exercises are not contrived or over-elaborate and provided they don’t turn  young people off literature – which I have a feeling can happen.


English Literature is something to be enjoyed not something to be endured. If pupils enjoy reading when they are young there is every chance they will enjoy reading as adults. Teachers should encourage them to read widely and try out different genres, including the classics, but even more they should encourage them to read books that they choose themselves. Should they wish to study a book in more depth they should be shown a few basic techniques of critical analysis. 


Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be forensically studied, Jane Austen didn’t write Pride and Prejudice so that it could become a set text for examinations and Seamus Heaney didn’t write Digging just for inclusion in an English syllabus. So let’s do these writers, and thousands of others, a big favour and drop English Literature altogether as a subject at GCSE.  Let’s just say to our pupils, here’s some good stuff to read, why not give it a go.





It’s SATs season again. Whatever one’s views on the subject – and I’m in favour of keeping them – the tests are certainly challenging. I’ve just finished doing some SATs revision with one of my pupils and I’ve been reminded of how demanding they are. If you’re doubtful about this try writing a report about a new type of training shoe in 45 minutes – the 2009 writing task.  Or, from one of the 2009 maths papers, circle the two decimals that have a difference of 0.5: 0.2, 0.25, 0.4, 0.45, 0.6, 0.75.


One of the reasons for having the tests is to ensure that children in primary schools are being taught effectively. If most of them get good marks in the SATs tests we can be reasonably confident they are – and we should be grateful to primary school teachers for delivering high standards of education to our pupils.




Edition 113

13 May 2011






Headteachers’ salaries are too high and so are their pensions. They should not be receiving six-figure salaries and, like everyone else in the public sector, neither should they receive final salary pensions. In the interests of a more equitable society, and I like to think that headteachers are interested in such a concept, they should be paid a flat rate pension that is the same for every public sector worker irrespective of their earnings whilst in employment. 

There is no reason why pensions should be based either on a final salary or an average salary over a period of employment. If you are paid more for the work you do, that should be seen as sufficient reward for the skills and ability you bring to a job without any expectation that this will carry on for the rest of your life. Those who are fortunate enough to receive higher salaries will, after all, be in a better position than most to build up savings for when they retire.    

If we want a fairer, and therefore a better society, we can begin by taking a serious look at levels of remuneration in the public sector. Paying everyone the same salary, whatever the nature of their work, is unrealistic but paying the same pension seems perfectly reasonable. I would be happy to see the school caretaker receiving the same occupational pension as the headteacher. 

Too idealistic– maybe. More than a touch of socialism – probably. But there can’t be any harm in looking at the whole issue from a more radical perspective. There is too much talk in the teaching profession about salaries, pensions and career advancement and not enough about the actual job being far more important than the rate of pay. 

I hope those heads who are contemplating industrial action over proposed changes to their pensions will reflect on the fact that their current generous provision is being paid for by many people who will receive a very modest income in their retirement. They should not need reminding that their duty, and vocation, is to serve society and they should therefore accept the gradual phasing out of final salary schemes and their replacement with more affordable and equitable alternatives.




There’s nothing like reading the musings of a philosopher. John White’s recent musings in the TES should be compulsory reading for parents, pupils, teachers and politicians – even if they won’t agree with everything he says. How about this: 

“What does Michael Gove think his essential knowledge is for? Presumably, to help us all to lead more flourishing lives, personally and as citizens. But if so, why not put the spotlight directly on this wider aim, rather than on curriculum content? Why not start by asking how schools can best prepare children for a life of well-being, rather than focussing on what is at most only one way of doing this?” 

Why not indeed? And that's not all that different from some of the things written in these columns over the years. 

I’m not so sure, though, about children making more decisions about what they learn and when, another of John White’s ideas. That sounds a bit like Plowden to me, the 60s and 70s. A return to the philosophies of that era would be a big mistake – but only in my view, of course.  


John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His new book 'Exploring Well-Being in Schools: A Guide to Making Children’s  Lives More Fulfilling' is available on Amazon. 


For my own musings about the purpose of school see: 


Edition100  Education and the Aspirations that Matter 

Edition102  Dear Michael: the Purpose of School 




Keyboard skills are probably not the subject of a great deal of philosophising but they certainly come under the heading“essential knowledge”.  Shouldn't the government encourage all primary schools to teach them to their Year 6 pupils after SATs have finished? This would be just the right time to do it and it is something that would benefit children for the rest of their lives.




Edition 114

1 July 2011






I’ve been a supporter of national assessment tests at the end of the primary phase since they were first introduced. I don’t agree with league tables, nor with giving children grades in the form of levels, nor with timed tests and nor with teachers spending an excessive amount of time preparing pupils for their SATs. But a supporter of the tests I remain. 

It seems perfectly reasonable, in my view, to measure objectivley, and against national benchmarks, how much progress children have made in maths and English during the seven years of formal education they havecompleted by the time they leave primary school. It is surely perfectly reasonable, too, for parents to be given information about their own children’s progress and, by presenting results in a simple format, to be aware of what has been achieved by the whole school. Which means, of course, that schools must continue to give them individual results as well as information about the cohort that has been tested. Since state education is funded by the taxpayer it is equally in order for the collated results to be published on school websites so that anyonewho is interested can see them. 

I firmly believe that SATs have had a positive effect on children’s learning. They have provided schools with essential targets in basic skills and led to high expectations for every pupil, especially, and crucially, those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Although there is still room for improvement  I’m sure the tests have contributed to a significant levering up of standards. They brought an end to some of the drift and inconsistency that found its way into primary education during the Plowden era. 

The way forward for SATs is to be more relaxed about their place in the overall scheme of things and certainly not to use them for naming and shaming schools. A welcome improvement would be to devise test papers that were more helpful in identifying specific information about an individual pupil’s learning so that this could then be acted upon. I’m encouraged to see a comment along these lines in Lord Bew’s recent SATs review. It is crucial, he says, that parents are provided with detailed information about their child’s attainmentand progress so they can understand how to help their child improve. 

The Bew report will come as a disappointment to the many primary teachers who want to get rid of SATs. The tests are here to stay and the report rightly underlines their importance for the purposes of accountability and driving up standards of attainment. It does, however, propose two changes to their content. One of these is the introduction of a test for spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary – something that is long overdue– and the other is a proposal to assess writing by teacher assessment rather than a written test. 

The second change is unnecessary. Requiring children to take a simple writing test shouldn’t be a problem and in my experience they often produce some of their best work in this situation. It is important to know how well they can set down their ideas and this could easily be achieved by giving them two short pieces of writing to complete in as much time as they require. One piece would assess the clarity and grammatical accuracy of their writing, and the second would assess their ability to write with interest. There is no need for anything else – assessing their ability to write in different genres can and should be left until much later. 

I’m pleased and relieved that SATs are not disappearing. There is no reason why they shouldn’t continue to deliver high standards and no reason at all why they should undermine the richness of the primary school curriculum. It would be an improvement, though, if they were untimed and also an improvement if the present system of awarding levels were replaced with straightforward percentages. 

Above all, it would be better all round if the results were not used to draw up league tables or compile over-elaborate statistics that attempt to measure school performance. The only information that needs to be collated and published is the number of pupils who reach certain percentage scores in the two subjects being tested. This would be more than adequate to enable everyone to see what schools were doing and ensure that accountability were maintained. 

I look forward to the improvements I’ve suggested being considered by teachers and politicians. With some sensible adjustments we could have a useful system of national assessment which would command widespread support from parents, teachers and taxpayers and, more importantly, would benefit our pupils.   


See also in Archives: 

Edition 90   The Solution to SATs

Edition 108   Keep SATS, Abolish GCSEs




Well said, Tim Oates. I agree. The head of the panel reviewing the national curriculum says more can be done at home to support pupils’ learning. Much more in my view. It should be the norm that from reception right through to GCSEs, NVQs, BTECS and degree courses children should be talking about what they are learning and parents should be taking an interest by listening, asking questions and contributing ideas.

If we wish to become a truly educated society then the home should be as much a centre of learning as the school. 


See also: Edition 96   Education: Time for Self-help 




Edition 115

5 August 2011






How many qualified electricians has Eton produced recently? How many brickies once sat in the classrooms of Westminster school and how many young gentlemen from St Paul’s have dreamed of becoming car mechanics.

… Although the gap may be narrowing, there is no escaping the fact, however, that in terms of access to prestigious universities, and especially to Oxbridge, a disproportionate number of privately educated pupils have more opportunities than youngsters from state schools. For the latter group the dreaming spires remain a distant prospect… 

For the full article see this week’s essay. 


The article was written before the tragic incident in which a pupil from Eton was killed by a polar bear on an expedition to Spitsbergen. Our thoughts are with his family at this very sad time.




This year’s SATs results are good. They’ve been good for a long time. The vast majority of pupils who leave primary school are more than competent in basic English and maths. They are not only well-equipped for their secondary education but even more importantly have acquired skills that will last them a lifetime. Some children could certainly do better, but overall our pupils and teachers should be warmly congratulated. 

As someone who believes in the basic principle of SATs I’m heartened by the levels of attainment. Level 4 or above is attained by 84% of pupils in reading and 75% of pupils in writing – 8% higher than four years ago. In maths the figure is 80%, 3% higher than four years ago. By any standards these are impressive results. 

Even more impressive are the statistics which show the number of pupils who attain a Level 5: 42% in reading and 35% in maths. 

We should also remember the Level 3s, many of whom will have worked hard for their level and some of whom will have missed a Level 4 by only one mark. There is no reason why they shouldn’t cope perfectly well with secondary school and make further progress in their English, maths and other areas of the curriculum. 

SATs tests are not easy and anyone who thinks they are should try them for themselves. Primary school teachers across the country should be pleased with their endeavours and their achievements should be appreciated by us all.


See Edition 114 for:  Sats to Stay but Stats can Go







How many qualified electricians has Eton produced recently? How many brickies once sat in the classrooms of Westminster school and how many young gentlemen from St Paul’s have dreamed of becoming car mechanics? As for the young ladies attending St Paul’s School for girls, are there any who have aspired to owning their own hairdressing salons? Not many, I guess, is the answer to each of the questions – which would hardly come as a great surprise. 

I’m using these four schools as examples because they’ve been in the news recently but I could have chosen plenty of others. Have any former pupils of Cheltenham LadiesCollege become bus drivers in the past few years and have any students from Winchesterended up emptying wheelie bins and recycling boxes? One pupil from Marlborough Collegehas made it to royal princess but did any of her contemporaries opt for a career on a Tesco’s checkout? I doubt it. Somehow it would not be in keeping with the ethos of the school. 

I’m moved to ask these questions about our public schools after reading a recent report by the Sutton Trust. According to the report, Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s and St Paul’s Girls, together with a sixth form college in Cambridge, secured more Oxbridge places between 2007 and 2009 than 2,000 other schools combined. Between them they sent 946 students, an astonishing number, to either Oxford or Cambridge compared with 927 from the other 2,000 schools or colleges. The study also reveals that pupils in the independent sector are more than twice as likely as pupils in comprehensives to be accepted into one of the 30 most highly selective universities: 48.2% compared with 18%. 

It is clear that independent schools still continue to send a greater proportion of pupils to elite universities than state schools. How the numbers compare with ten, twenty or fifty years ago I don’t know but Iwould be surprised if the state sector has not been narrowing the gap given the publicity the issue has attracted in recent decades. Although the gap may be narrowing, there is no escaping the fact, however, that in terms of access to prestigious universities, and especially to Oxbridge, a disproportionate number of privately educated pupils have more opportunities than youngsters from state schools. For the latter group the dreaming spires remain a distant prospect. 

But why are the dreaming spires more unattainable for state school pupils than those from the independent sector? Better results at A-level seems to be the simple answer but why are the results better? I can think of a number of reasons. Smaller classes may account for some of the difference but they are probably not that critical. Selection is much more important, as, of course, is an advantageous backround, but the single biggest factor is expectation. Parents, teachers and the pupils themselves have high expectations. It is expected that young people will succeed and a culture of success and excellence is the hallmark of a modern British public school. 

What about the fairness issue? Is it fair that more pupils from Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s and other fee-paying schools gain places at elite universities than pupils educated in the state sector? Is it fair that wealthy parents are able to purchase educational advantage in the form of good A-levels and access to what is best in higher education? I have no doubt that it’s not fair and most people I’m sure would agree. It can’t be fair that money can buy you a better education and it can’t be fair either that independent schools get more young people into the top universities. So is it finally time to take drastic action to level the playing field and abolish private education entirely? 

I don’t think so. Apart from telling parents how they should or should not spend their money we would be denying them the right to do what they think is best for their children. And, taken to its logical conclusion, if we say that education is something that should not be purchased then parents would not be permitted to pay for their children to have music, swimming or any other lessons on the grounds that this would give them an unfair advantage. Moreover, we would also have to stop parents reading with their children as some would do more than others, which wouldn’t be fair, and we could certainly not allow them to help their children with homework as this could produce marked differences in attainment. 

With more commitment and imagination all round it ought to be possible, though, to level the playing field without restricting individual liberty and giving complete control of education to the state. If all schools could have higher expectations across the curriculum this would go a long way towards narrowing the attainment gap. 

But does it really matter if more pupils from public schools go to the top universities and is it such a big deal anyway to have adegree from Oxford or Cambridge? It matters in some ways, certainly, but it doesn’t matter as much as many people think. It matters because it’s not fair, and that in itself is a cause for concern, and it matters because it may prevent some youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances fulfilling their aspirations or not using their talents to the full.  Perhaps most worryingly it matters if too many politicians attend public schools and Oxbridge and end up running the country with no idea of what life is like for ordinary people – which is presently the case. 

On the other hand if not many young people are attracted to the the sort of careers for which Oxford and Cambridge are still useful stepping stones, then why would they want to go there? And if they don’t feel the pull of tradition that still exists in these two places that is all the more reason not to apply. Other universities, whether in the top 30 or not, will be offering degrees that not only appear to be more relevant but will also be extremely rigorous. As for having aspirations to enter the world of politics via a degree from Oxbridge there are, fortunately, plenty of other ways to become a politician. 

I’m in favour of academic excellence and there seems to be a lot of it about at Oxford andCambridge. But a lot can be found elsewhere, at other universities and in society at large – you don’t need a university education to be able to study and analyse a subject in depth.  

On the grounds of fairness and fulfilling potential I would like to see many more able pupils from less advantaged backgrounds engaged in academic study of the highest quality. To achieve this it will be necessary to raise standards of attainment in state schools so that more of their pupils can get to Oxford and Cambridge if that is what they wish to do. At the same time we should be much more active in ensuring that other universities match the academic excellence of Oxbridge and that this is widely known. In this way Oxford andCambridge will become just two among many institutions that have a reputation for excellence. 

But there is something even more important to achieve than guaranteeing that high quality academic education is available to all. There needs to be a radical shift in our perceptions about education altogether. We need to place a much higher value on practical skills and a much higher value, too, on what makes a good and happy human being. Putting the happiness debate to one side for the moment we need to recognise that there is nothing mutually exclusive about valuing an education that delivers high academic standards and valuing an education in which the emphasis is on practical learning.    

And here we return to Eton and St Paul’s and the aspirations they encourage in their pupils – aspirations no doubt fully supported by the pupils’ parents. The goal, it seems to me, is a university education, preferably at Oxbridge, followed by a successful and remunerative career in a profession or business along with the perceived social status that this brings. These are not unreasonable aspirations or career paths but they are not as essential to society as many others on which we depend. 

It is these careers that we need to value more highly– careers to which, in everyone’s interest, young people should aspire. In today’s society it is essential, for example, to have skilled mechanics to service and repair our cars. It is essential to have enough trained bricklayers to build our houses and enough qualified plumbers to instal our central heating. Moreover, it is vital, too, that we have bus drivers to take us to work, lorry drivers to supply our supermarkets and assistants to serve in our shops. A degree in law or classics from Oxford is not the best qualification for these occupations. 

So I ask again how many electricians have been to Eton? Not enough to meet our needs is the answer but thankfully we don’t have to rely on this establishment, nor any others in the independent sector, to produce them. Courses for aspiring electricians are available at colleges of further education throughout the country,which is just as well if we want our homes to be lit and our gadgets to function. 

I acknowledge the talents of those who set their sights on the dreaming spires but I have an equally high regard for young people with more down-to-earth aspirations. Anyone who is planning to become a brickie or a sparky deserves our gratitude and should be congratulated for their choice of career. And when they qualify let’s applaud them even more enthusiastically than we applaud our university students on graduation day.