Sarah Todd: The over-educated staff who fail to make the grade

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EXAM season is upon us. Having had nothing to do with the stressful subject for at least a quarter of a century, it now seems that you need A-grades to do almost anything.

It had been bothering me for a while that shop girls aren’t what they used to be. Instead of the sort of smiley staff that say you look lovely and ask if you are going anywhere special; there seems to be a growing army of sharp-suited, degree-level retail under-executives.

For me, they make going through the revolving doors of the shop that promises to be “never knowingly undersold” – along with a long list of others – an absolute “no”.

Nurses need a degree these days. Time was they needed to be caring, compassionate and have the vocation to help others. Our 97-year-old grandmother has been in hospital and while we have come across plenty of marvellous staff it was obvious that a new over-educated breed has infiltrated their number.

These upstarts were too important with their clipboards, computers and daft questions to notice that she was cold and could do with an extra blanket. They didn’t see she hadn’t 
got a drink and is from a generation that wouldn’t ever dream of asking.

Talking of generation, this is a lady who remembers going to school in a pony and trap. For 
the nurses of yesteryear it 
would be second nature to treat her with the courtesy that her age deserves and address her “Mrs Todd”.

Of course, there are careers that need top marks. But our system seems to be over-relying on grades rather than gumption. There can’t be many readers of The Yorkshire Post who don’t know somebody, or somebody’s child, who has wanted to be a vet.

Just the other day we were talking to a lovely lad, from a farming family, who has been told his expected grades just aren’t good enough. His country nous meant nothing. Instead, the system seems to be churning out those with the brain power but certainly not the brawn or banter to be any use as large animal vets. The farming Press once commissioned me to write a piece about this very problem.

Talking of writing, a spell helping out with some journalism students was such an eye-opener.

Many were doing a second degree, but hadn’t the first clue how to answer the telephone or put somebody they were interviewing at their ease. Are we producing a workforce that is too educated; that thinks they are above doing any grass-roots legwork? They turned their noses up at tales of this 
reporter’s early days covering golden weddings.

Our teenage daughter’s teachers seem so busy testing and analysing marks one can’t help wondering if they ever do any actual teaching. Or whether they even know who she is and what makes her tick. The very real fear is she’s just a level on a computer print-out.

Nobody seems to look at 
the wider picture. Who gives 
two hoots about whether a 
young person can look an adult in the eye and talk to them? Who in authority puts their head above the parapet of exam revision to urge watching the news and reading for pleasure? It’s all about passing those exams. But what if they don’t?

With the emphasis so much on jumping through the hoops of further education, where does that leave the boy or girl who isn’t academically gifted? Are they to be denied any entry to the workforce?

Modern apprenticeships are a good idea, but don’t be fooled. To become an apprentice you still need some exam passes.

Love him or loathe him, 
there’s no getting away from pop music mogul Simon Cowell’s success. He left school with just two O-levels. He’s now worth around £300m. Chef Jamie Oliver (worth £200m) and 55-year-old designer Cath Kidston (worth £30m) also prove that lacking a degree doesn’t set back individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit.

No such list would be complete without Sir Richard Branson. His £2.7bn net worth came after leaving school at 16. Importing jeans from Asia to sell in London while still a teenager laid the foundations of Sir Philip Green’s £3.1bn fashion empire.

Yes, raising academic standards has to be a good thing. But we ignore other aspects of pupils’ personalities at our peril.

In my mind – we’re back to nurses – they should still be a certain sort of person. Maybe a reincarnation of Florence Nightingale is asking a bit 
much, but basic caring and common sense should surely be required traits.

A-grades aren’t everything. The recipient of such top marks will hopefully go on to aspire and achieve. But don’t forget that the student who gets a C can be canny, creative and charismatic. Also, there can be nothing like the F of a fail for focusing. The really bright don’t need everything explaining to them in lessons and lectures. Clever people have the brains to work life out for themselves.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.