Christine Jardine: Exams not only grade of success

Exam results are released today. Picture: PA
Exam results are released today. Picture: PA
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As pupils receive their Highers this morning, it is time to remember that academia is just one route to a good career, writes Christine Jardine

Today is the day. Envelopes, text messages and e-mails across the country will bring the answer to the question that will have kept teenagers awake much of last night.

“Have I got what I need for the university or course I want?”

Over our dinner table on Sunday, while discussing everyone’s plans for the week, our teenager told us: “Monday I’ve got training. Tuesday I get my results. So Wednesday will be crisis management.”

She was joking. I hope. 

There’s no doubt that she, and many of her peers, will believe that 12 years in school will come down to the answer to that one question.

But should it? Are we putting too much emphasis, and with it pressure, on one set of results and one educational path?

Too many teenagers I know are convinced that their future will be determined, and their educational success judged, by how many A grades they have today.

I sometimes wonder if we are losing sight of the fact that there is more to education than a fistful of Highers. 

As a parent, I want the education system’s support in identifying where my child’s strengths lie, which path will lead them to a rewarding and fulfilling career and equipping them for it.

Whatever it might be.

It’s often difficult to avoid the suspicion, however, that political interference a generation ago, which put all the emphasis on rating schools’ performances in terms of Highers passed, is still tilting education towards a cookie-cutter approach to producing university-ready youngsters.

And are those who don’t quite fit that mould offered the solution for them, or do they have to make the best of a pattern that suits others?

Again, pressure to conform and get those Highers.

As the child of a working class household, where I was the first to go to university, I find the focus particularly disappointing.

Not all of my friends, or siblings for that matter, went to university. But they all have good careers and successful lives. As engineers, electricians, nurses, joiners and in a variety of other careers they have achieved success, and often built their own businesses, because they chose the path that was best for them.

I worry that too few of our children are given the chance, or the encouragement to explore those other options.

Do they know if there is an apprenticeship or college course that might fire their imagination?

Over the past few months I have visited a variety of employers to hear their views.

At one power company I heard how they had taken the initiative to visit schools and tell youngsters about the careers they could have.

Too often they found that the pupils simply had no idea that there was a quality career out there that didn’t demand a degree, or that if it did their employers would support them through it.

Similarly, a butcher I know is struggling to find the trained staff it will take to sustain a business that has been successful for decades and given him and his family an enviable standard of living.

It’s not the supermarkets that are the main threat to his business, it’s the skills shortage. Our obsession with Highers and university is, ironically, steering talent away from areas where it is needed.

Before I’m accused of looking backwards, or thinking university education should be the preserve of some elite, consider recent research produced by the United States government.

It showed that just one of the top nine occupations expected to grow and offer employment in the next decade requires a degree.

Although that is the US, it should sound a warning on this side of the Atlantic too.

When Tony Blair decreed that 50 per cent of 18-year-olds should go to university, did he really think it through?

Did he honestly think that 50 per cent of all jobs available would demand or require a degree?

Recently I saw some figures pointing out that a smaller percentage of German school leavers enrol in full time university courses, with no discernible damage to the country’s economy.

In this country we all know someone who has spent four years at university only to end up in a job far removed from their original ambitions and for which their qualifications are irrelevant.

As someone who taught post-graduate journalism, I became disillusioned with the fact that universities across Scotland were producing more people looking for jobs than the industry itself was capable of producing. Even in the good times.

Latterly, at least our politicians seem to have realised the error of that Labour government’s ways and turned their focus to creating opportunities elsewhere.

In 2012, Nick Clegg launched the £1 billion Youth Contract, one of the aims of which is to encourage employers to take on trainees.

His ministers have been encouraging employers and school leavers to see the potential that each has to offer.  

Both Scotland’s governments recognise that filling the evident skills gap is going to be crucial to growth in our economy.

Hopefully, that will mean a move away from our obsession with university places and the pressure on children to pursue an academic career whether it is best for them or not.

Yes exams are important, but they are not the only criteria or guide to our children’s skills.

They are a means to an end – several ends, of which a university career is only one.

Perhaps as they mull over how the SQA has judged their performance in those exam rooms three months ago, we should encourage our children to bear in mind that there will be more to life than their exam results.