Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

False Dichotomies

False Dichotomies


I seem to spend my life tweeting or writing about the false dichotomies created by policymakers or opinion-formers who adopt one extreme position or another when the truth (in terms of real life, let alone professional practice) lies in between. It happened again this week.

First, Education Secretary Vicky Morgan made an ill-informed speech suggesting that young people need to study subjects like maths and sciences (the “hard” STEM subjects) if they want to have a better chance of a career. Next RBS (a bank that’s signally failed to cover itself in glory in the last decade) suggested that it should recruit more arts graduates, because mathematicians and economists are too linear and helped lead them into their particular and into the global financial problems of recent years.

Thank heavens there is some sense about, however. The Times’s Business columnist, Sathnam Sanghera, writing in today’s paper, suggested that it was nonsense – or, at least, too narrow a view. RBS (let alone the whole of business) doesn’t just need people who have read English at university (a former student of mine, he read English at Cambridge): what they should be doing, he observed sagely, is simply to recruit a greater diversity of employees.

It’s not rocket science, is it? It is genuinely unhelpful to have people trying to push young people into particular courses so that they can fit particular niches. Real life isn’t like that.

Our education system is full of flaws, and it’s not going to be helped by the rushed changes to GCSE or A level. But one reason why the GCSE and A level package still has more advantages (just!) than disadvantages is that there is a requirement for significant breadth up to age 16 after which students can specialise. That pattern certainly suits students at the RGS. And, post-16, boys and girls must be able to choose subjects that not only suit their career aspirations but also actually excite them. As I say when they are choosing subjects, it’s no use doing a particular subject for A level because “it’s good for you”: there’s too much hard work for too long (two years) to be doing a subject that’s like cough mixture, horrible but does you good! It’s got to be stuff that you can be passionate about, that gets you out of bed in the morning.

And then interested, passionate people will follow university courses that suit them – and, if the green shoots of economic recovery are as real as is currently claimed, they will follow careers that interest them as well.

It’s not easy to get jobs out there right now. But silly, ill-informed and narrow views about what makes a desirable employee don’t help anyone.

Good advice is consistently offered at the RGS: and at this time of year I should pay tribute to Mr Downie and his team who give advice not only on careers but on university courses. Together they help our huge sixth form cohort with their university applications. It’s a hectic time: and I believe our students get help and support to match the best in the country.

And they don’t talk nonsense or create false dichotomies! Well done, team!

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster