mark smith from scotland

St Andrews, qualifications and education

Prince William, the heir to the heir of the British throne, started university in St. Andrews last month. St. Andrews is a seaside town on the North East peninsula of the historic Kingdom of Fife, home of Scotland's oldest university and of course, home of golf. The prince’s arrival there was accompanied by a frenzy of media activity. Every journalist, media or political figure who went to university there seems to have been wheeled out to give their accounts of student life in the town.

Guess what! I went to St. Andrews. My arrival was considerably less auspicious than Prince William–s. I arrived in an old van I borrowed from the ship’s chandlers I had worked in over the summer. There was no obvious press interest and I’m not aware of applications for places showing any dramatic increase on account of my imminent arrival. They apparently soared by over 40% on release of the news that Prince William was to attend, much of the increase being accounted for, it seems, by girls eager to meet their prince charming. Just the way it goes I suppose.

Prince William’s choice of St. Andrews is being greeted as breaking with royal traditions of attending university at Oxford or Cambridge. From my own standpoint it is hardly a break with tradition for an English public schoolboy to study art history at St. Andrews. Pretty conventional really. It was more of a break with tradition when a school friend of mine from a housing scheme in Edinburgh did the same. He realised he was at a bit of a disadvantage though, when, in a tutorial, one of his classmates spoke in intricate detail about an Old Master. It transpired that the painting in question hung in the family home!

Enough of my egalitarian musings. St. Andrews is a special place, beautiful, unique to the point of idiosyncracy and freezing cold. I have some great memories. I hope Prince William and indeed every new student leaves having had a similarly happy time there.

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One of those memories is of an introduction, in which the Rector, quoting his predecessor, the comedian, John Cleese, addressed new students with the line, "Welcome to St. Andrews and don’t let getting a degree interfere with your education." It’s a line that has stuck with me over the years as I consider the purposes of education. Does it not have some intrinsic worth? Can this really be subsumed beneath the exchange value conferred or hoped for in being able to say that you once sat in a lecture with a real life prince? Is it not a bit worrying that supposedly intelligent 18 year olds should use this as one of the criteria determining their choice of university?

Perhaps I shouldn’t find this too surprising. It seems to reflect more general current views about education.Such views are at variance with the Scottish educational ideal of the "Democratic Intellect,” a belief that local "lads o” pairts” could make their ways through the parish educational system to the great universities of the land. Much of this belief was no doubt used to mask some of the unacceptably authoritarian aspects of Scottish education. Nevertheless, it instilled in me a belief that education could and should be a liberating force. Applied to the young people I went on to work with, I thought it a means through which they might come to understand and begin to contest and change the rotten hand life had dealt them.

Social work as a profession does not have a good track record in acknowledging the benefit of education for youth or in supporting them in it. More recently this has been acknowledged in a big push to improve the educational outcomes for young people in residential care. But again to what end? The education system seems to be being pushed down a route of certification for all where certification is all. Special schools are being forced to adopt mainstream curricula. Erstwhile opportunities for outdoor and creative activities are marginalised in the bureaucratic demands of the timetable. I can’t help but wonder who benefits from this. Is the achievement of a couple of foundation level certificates really going to improve the life chances of youth in care or does it merely satisfy the “quality” imperatives of school managers? Is their educational experience going to help kids challenge and change their worlds or are we merely inducting the next generation of "hewers of wood and drawers of water?”

A similar argument can be applied to staff in residential child care. What value do we place on them when we consign them to a future of vocational qualifications? What do we say about the potentially transformational purpose of group care when we adopt a training infrastructure which assumes that the future is given and the task can be defined and assessed in a plethora of VQ learning outcomes? We surely need to be thinking less about qualifications and more about education.

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