It seems to me that our collective worship of youth is getting well and truly out of control and, if we aren’t careful, these bright young things are going to lead us straight to hell in a basket. Gone are the days when age meant wisdom and young people were expected to serve some sort of apprenticeship. Nowadays, as long as you have the gift of the gab, you are just a career plan away from being fast tracked straight to the top of whichever career ladder takes your fancy. It’s no coincidence then that every institution from banking to the NHS is crumbling around our ears when we have people running them who don’t know what they are doing. I’m not blaming them, I mean how could they possibly know what they are doing if they haven’t put in the years at the bottom, honing the skills that are vital to be effective at the top.
Traditionally, whatever your trade, you would serve an apprenticeship. This wasn’t always formal, like it would be for say a plumber or a hairdresser, but it was an apprenticeship none the less. Apprenticeships though require an investment of time and that costs money. Oh I know there is the sham of modern apprenticeships but anybody who works with young people knows they are just an excuse to pay kids £2.65 an hour and get them out of the dole queue where they scupper the government’s unemployment statistics. No, I’m talking about proper apprenticeships where you actually perfect real skills.
My own apprenticeship, although it wasn’t called that of course, began in 1985, when I got my first job at a prestigious school just outside Brighton. I’d just skived my way through teacher training, applying for jobs based on the simple criteria that I wanted to live on the coast. My interview was shambolic; I had done no preparation, wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a teacher and had spent the night on a friend of a friend’s floor. The woman who was to be my head of department says she saw something in me however and, offered me the job along with the dark warning, “You’d better not let me down.”
She was an imposing figure and her words did illicit a chill of fear but, I soon forgot about them as I revelled in the glorious summer holidays, totally in denial about the prospect of becoming a fully paid up member of the workforce. It was only when I started the job that I realised the full impact of her words as I found myself on a production line that went straight to Oxbridge. This wasn’t the kind of school where mishaps would be tolerated. If you cocked up, you felt the full force of the extremely affluent parents on your head.
It was a steep learning curve but I had a staunch and loyal champion in my head of department. She was a hard taskmaster; there was no doubt about that. In fact, she made Genghis Khan look like a pushover and she wiped the floor with me on many an occasion. Crucially though, she knew that everybody has to learn and that takes time. I made so many mistakes in those early years from losing an entire sixth form group in London to having the brain wave of holding my lesson outside in a heat wave, resulting in several cases of sunstroke and lots of irate parents baying for my blood. None of that mattered, however, because when you are serving your apprenticeship you are supposed to make mistakes or how else are you going to learn?
My head of department was in her late 40s when she got landed with me and had been teaching for over twenty years. She was and indeed still is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met and that’s what made her an outstanding teacher. Obviously she’s long since retired and it’s just as well because there would be no place for her in the bland, modern world of teaching. Anybody who incurred her wrath was castigated, often publically and oh so very clearly. These days she would no doubt be the subject of a law suit, accused of crushing some delicate young thing's confidence. That woman got results though from anyone who was fortunate enough to pass through her hands be that student or hapless young teacher.
Comparing my own early experiences with someone entering teaching now, is not even possible. Every young teacher now has a career plan that invariably involves being a head teacher within ten years. What’s worse is that for a lot of them it becomes a reality. It’s not unheard of for people to be heading departments after a couple of years and then it’s fast track all the way. But what are these people actually bringing to the profession? It’s not their fault, they’ve never had anybody invest the time into them and so how can they be expected to nurture those who come up behind them.
Over the years, I’ve mentored my fair share of young teachers and there’s definitely been a shift in attitude. Gone is the willingness to make mistakes and take the risks that will make them a better teacher. Instead there is a guarded, competitive element, where people seem to resent any offers of guidance or criticism. I’ve found myself more than once in the surreal position of mentoring some arrogant young fool only for him to end up my boss a year or two down the road. We seem to live in a society that places no value on experience and sees mistakes as a sign of weakness.
It’s not just teaching where this is a problem. I recently paid a visit to the doctor for the first time in twenty years and found myself confronted by a teenager. His answer to my concerns was, and I quote, “Fifty to fifty five are notoriously difficult years for women.” Frankly, he had the bedside manner of Hannibal Lecter and why wouldn’t he? He had no life experience; he could barely even look me in the eye. Consequently, I found myself a lovely acupuncturist in her 60s, who may be peddling hogwash but I don’t care. She peddles it with a kindness and gravitas that befits her years. Similarly, I recently had cause to phone the police when my confused, elderly neighbour accidentally left her door open and was burgled. To be fair, even though it wasn’t an emergency, they responded quickly but they were useless. Two pimply twelve year olds, who could barely contain their irritation with a frightened old lady whose jewellery and purse had been stolen. I can’t help thinking that if they had coupled one of the young oafs with a more experienced officer, he would have probably had a chance of becoming an effective policeman.
All in all, it’s no big surprise to me that we have an unskilled workforce. A workforce that’s been built on the cheap is no different to a house that’s been built on the cheap. One of these days it’s all going to come tumbling down.