Sunday, 8 December 2013

Do British children get a "real" education?

I've been thinking about education a lot in the past month. As a student, about to get spat out of the top end of the educational system, I look back and consider what I have really learnt from my time in school and university. Ok, so I know how to spell, where to put commas and full stops, when the world wars happened, how to add 2 and 2... but I wonder how important these things really are in the modern society. 

Throughout my time in school, I was always told: Work hard, get good grades, go to university and you'll get a good, well paid job at the end of it. This message might have been true when my parents were at school, when they both got paid to go to university, but, to me, this doesn't seem to be the case any more. I've watched both of my sisters go through their education, get top grades from top universities (2:1 from Cambridge, 1st from Exeter + a distinction MSci from Imperial College, London) and still struggle immensely to get jobs afterwards. Their top advice to me - get practical experience!

I followed the family way and was good in school. Top GCSEs, Head Girl, straight As at A level, consistent 1st class grades (thus far) throughout uni, but I have to say, I'm not sure how helpful all this has been. Looking forward to my future career prospects, I'm fairly certain it's the practical experience, and the people I've met through this, that will eventually win me a job post-uni. Talking to local employers, we don't discuss what modules I'm doing at uni, or what grades I'm getting; we discuss the people I was out ringing with at the weekend, or how the hen harrier nesting season went at Vyrnwy, who I met on Bardsey and what birds I saw. In the area I'm hoping to go into, it's these experiences and connections that are valuable.

So why is it that the grade driven, classroom based system still exists? Isn't it time the curriculum moved with the times, like the rest of us have to? It's no good teaching the latest advances in technology and research, if the students never get time to learn how to practically use them. In my opinion, far more emphasis needs to be put on work experience now. It's no good doing two weeks during GCSE's or A levels and hoping that this will still be relevant on your CV 4 years later when you graduate! At a CV writing workshop this week a student asked - "What if we've done work experience, but can't quite remember what we did because it was a few years ago?". My immediate internal response - "Get out and do some new stuff now, so you can remember!". It frustrates me that most university students simply don't understand or recognise how important practical experience is these days. They haven't had older sisters to learn from, haven't been volunteering to ask the staff what they look for in employees. I've tried to tell this message to as many of my peers as possible, but most just don't get it. They say, and truly believe, "if I knuckle down and get a 1st, then I'll be fine". This is what the modern education system has taught them and so I can't blame them for thinking it. 

I've learnt to think outside the box during my time volunteering with BTO, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, FSC etc, and hopefully this will serve me well in the future. I just hope it's not too late for the current unemployment levels to shake some sense into my friends, and the educational system of the future.

[ I would prefer to have some data and references to go with this blog, but the weight of university work at the moment doesn't afford me the spare reading time. ]


  1. Very well said Ros,

    Practical experience is a must in the conservation world these days. I took a year out between A levels (which I did not do great at I must admit) and doing a uni course in Conservation management at Exeter. I went on a Employment Training scheme at Sandwich Bay BIrd Obs (paid £10 on top of my unemployment benefit) and I have never looked back and pent the past 23 years working at three bird observatories (Sandwich, North Ron and the last 16 here on Bardsey)

    We are looking at the moment for a new AW, and have had several applicants that are very good. However, it is not the A level and degree bits on their CV we look at it is the practical experience we are looking at first, then the education.

    Don't get me wrong though I do think it is important that education is important (Home schooling our Son, we keep telling him the same!). There is more and more admin, paperwork etc etc to be done in work today and we certainly find that the graduates can do the admin and reporting side perfectly fine, but they are generally let down by the practical skills they are lacking.

    I quote from one young lady (a graduate!) "what is that cunning device" - Reply "a screw driver!!!!!!". Excellent on report writing, useless in a tool shed!

    It is a fine balance, Education is a must (but to what level?), and as much field time as you possibly can in the right areas is also a must whilst doing the education bit!


  2. I couldn't agree more Steve!

    There must be a way to strike a balance between education and experience. At the moment, education is so relentless that most people simply don't have time to get the experience, and they're rarely encouraged to do so.

    It must be possible to get children out of the classroom and encourage them to interact with the natural world, especially in the conservation subjects. When learning about succession and disturbance theory, get out and look at it, measure it, do it in practise not in theory! And why not link up with local organisations and have the kids do one day a week of work experience? Surely replacing one day of lessons a week with practical experience can't be anything but good in the long run?

    I guess it just takes a few forward thinking people, and a lot of political pressure, to change the system so radically. It's no wonder the country's educational status is so poor.


  3. The problem has a lot to due with the current Health & Safety culture. A friend of my wife is a head teacher at a Wirra primary school. Every year the kids do a science project on Hilbre but they've never been there! With risk assessments etc. to do and then the organisational aspects of getting the kids across they've felt it hasn't been worth it. We are talking about giving them a ringing demonstration in the school grounds but again unless you are CRB checked (or whatever the new term is) you are at a disadvantage and its hard to get such checks unless you are accredited to a school / sports team / brownies/ guides / cubs / scouts etc.

    As an employer I've seen some pretty impractical graduates come for interviews and my advice would be to anyone that getting a good degree shows you have achieved a good standard of education and you have (some) intelligence but there is no substitute for hands on practical experience.

  4. Thanks Phil.
    You're right, and this is another problem I'd like to see addressed in the future. The current suing culture and money grabbing mentality has a lot to answer for! I'm not saying go back to the H&S standards of the '50s, but there must be a middle ground between then and now, that can be reached. Laws that stop kids getting out and about, and expanding their learning, can't be well thought out. There must be a way of loop holing it that means they're allowed to travel down the road to a bird observatory, and invaluable educational resource. It pains me to think that the government doesn't encourage and facilitate these kinds of visits.
    In an increasingly selfish world, it's these kind of visits that might change the mentality of the next generation. Instead they're encouraged to stay indoors, watch screens, and avoid all things pointy and practical! It's no wonder we have to import workmen from abroad, so few people in this country (compared to 30 years ago) ever get the chance to develop practical skills.