Skip to content

No Mr Sunak, piling on the prepositions and equations won’t make us better educated

October 4, 2023

Edumacation, as we children of Birmingham call it, is about to feature strongly at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s esteemed Prime Minister, is about to pull another goodie out of his increasingly threadbare bag of policies. He wants to create a British Baccalaureate that will give employers the “skills they need”. So students will be required to continue studying English and Maths along with their preferred options as a replacement of the current A Level system, in which they specialise in three or four subjects.

A jolly good idea, you might think, though perhaps he should first address crumbling school infrastructure, teacher shortages and the overarching financial constraints that currently afflict us. However, assuming that there are sufficient classrooms that aren’t about to collapse and a whole raft of new and enthusiastic teachers stand ready to embrace his reforms, I suspect that Sunak will have ceased to be prime minister for many years before the changes he advocates are processed through the civil service meat grinder and survive a trial by fire on the part of all the vested interests that might have something to say about them.

Much as disapprove of Sunak and his rabble of a government, I’m in favour of baccalaureates. Why? Because no matter what specialisations students choose for further education, they will surely benefit from a broader set of knowledge and skills. Having said that, Sunak doesn’t go far enough.

Yes, enhanced language skills would surely be useful especially if they resulted in the student being able to write a coherent, error-free CV without the aid of ChatGPT, which was an ability I found surprisingly lacking, even from graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, when I was an employer of supposedly bright people.

And maths? Depends on the application. Not so many people are called upon to plot the trajectory of a moon lander using slide rules these days. But yes, understanding some basic principles before having to resort to software applications would certainly be helpful, though you would expect those principles to be embedded in the curriculum way earlier than the final two years.

So what are these other skills that would be useful for employers?

The first thing to point out is that knowledge and skills don’t stay with you for life. They need to be continually revived, rekindled and refreshed. If unused, they fall away. So what you learn at school isn’t an indicator of what you will know at the age of forty. At my advanced age, I can still (at a push) read an ancient Greek or Latin gravestone, but ask me to write a description of Boris Johnson in Latin and I’d be stumped.

But it’s good to start out in adult life with a set of usable skills, whether or not they wither away with time. So here are five my favourites. If I was Minister of Education I would ask my civil servants to think about how they could roll them up into a Life Skills module, should Baccalaureates finally become a thing:

Personal Finance: Learning how to budget is pretty useful, even if you end up busting it like Liz Truss. Understanding statistics and how they can be manipulated. Understanding how banks work (or don’t). And for those of us who fancy getting a mortgage or maxing out our credit cards, an understanding of compound interest would be handy.

Communications: This would seem to be a pretty obvious one. But how many people do you know who are all broadcast and no receive? So listening skills, and the art of empathy, provided it doesn’t slip over into manipulation, would be helpful. Framing questions to get the desired response. And what about public speaking?

Critical Thinking. The perfect weapon for escaping from rabbit holes. If ever we need bullshit detection, it’s now. In fact, you could create an entire A Level dedicated to distinguishing between truths, half-truths, white lies and outright porkies. Not just on the part of mendacious politicians, but of salespeople, media stars, preachers and lovers. Yes, study of the humanities, such as Classics, history or philosophy, theoretically equips students with decent critical thinking ability. But these subjects are in decline as the technocrats urge us to focus on STEM subjects. Which is maybe why we’re all becoming so gullible.

Negotiating: One of the interesting aspects of leaving home and starting out as an independent adult is all the things you suddenly have to sort out for yourself: phones, cars, insurance and salary packages to name a few. I suspect many people do deals without the faintest idea of how to negotiate to their advantage. Need I say more?

Time management: the biggest shock for someone leaving school or going to their first job is transitioning from the regimented world of the classroom into a world in which success or failure can depend on how they manage their time. There are plenty of well-known time management tricks that can bridge the gap. I speak from experience because I was a lousy time manager. I flew from exam to employment by the seat of my pants. I know many, many people who did and still do the same. These days, with so much focus on stress and mental health, we owe it to our children to help them organise their lives better than we did.

Influencing: No, I’m not talking about selling stuff on Instagram, though successful influencers use tactics that would be recognised in classic screeds on the subject such as Robert Cialdini’s Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion. In most walks of life. the ability to persuade give us a priceless advantage.

There are other skills jostling for a place on the list, such as project management and conflict resolution. Many people acquire these skills in the course of their careers. Some go on courses. Other learn by experience. How much better for them if they could acquire at least the broad principles when they’re starting out?

In any event, this is something of an academic discussion, since, as I said, Sunak’s government is highly likely to be wiped out at the next election. So it’s not his party of Trumpites, crackpots and Little Englanders who need to be persuaded. I’d rather hear what the other lot are planning beyond decimating the country’s private schools – the best of which, incidentally, inculcate precisely the kind of skills I mention above – by removing their charitable status.

I can’t say I’m holding my breath. Best to live in hope rather than expectation.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply