Unqualified Nonsense?

Why the argument between Jo Swinson and Humza Yousaf shows that Britain’s attitudes towards young people needs to change. – by Martin Bloomfield

The Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Jo Swinson, speaking on BBC’s Question Time programme earlier this week, may think she’s done nothing more than spark a low-grade party-political row between herself and SNP MP Humza Yousaf. Her claim? That in one of the towns in her middle-class, affluent constituency, 80% of young children go on to university. Five or six miles down the road in Glasgow Govan it’s a measly 4%.

Not only Yousaf, but Govan Head Teacher Nancy Belford, took to social media straight afterwards condemning her maths. It’s not 4%, they claim, it’s 13%. Depending on which figures you look at.

And what makes her incorrect assertion even worse? It was the accusation that this meant the kids in Govan lacked aspiration!

So, while our politicians are playing football with statistics (and using schoolchildren to claim penalties against each other), something’s got lost in the sound and the fury.

Why on earth do they think they can measure aspiration and success on university entry figures?

Across the Channel in Europe’s strongest economy Germany, non-university options have long been valued far higher than they are over here. Want a job? Why not try an apprenticeship? In Swinson’s eyes, of course, that merely equates to a lack of oomf. And the best counterpunch Belford could find? – the figures are wrong; kids do go to university.

Here’s why this is such an insidious idea: when our education system crawled out of the primordial swamp sometime in the late 18th century as a response to the mind of the Enlightenment and the muscle of the Industrial Revolution, no one had ever heard of dyslexia. In fact, it took another hundred years for a couple of Germans and an Englishman to record dyslexia as a reading difficulty, and another hundred years or so after that for the British government to finally recognise it officially. If we knew then what we know now, we’d have formed education out of different clay, moulded it into a different shape, and baked it at a different temperature. Instead of putting children through an age- and subject-segregated conveyor belt of tests and stresses, of binary notions of success and failure, and of suffocating rules that discourage risk-taking and personal growth at the expense of conformity to a norm from a bygone age, we’d have allowed ourselves to measure aspiration and achievement by something other than the abstract and empty determinations of UCAS forms.

Here’s the thing. Kids aren’t failing because they’re not going to university; we’re failing our kids by demanding that they do. And we’re failing our businesses, and our culture of arts, and our society.

Just imagine if political arguments didn’t turn on the needle of university entries, but on the differentiated needs of multiple intelligences. Imagine if not wanting to go to university wasn’t seen as evidence of failure, but of evidence that some kids have got different strengths and requirements. And most shocking of all, imagine if we didn’t beat our opponents to death with our children, making the children feel like failures with every blow exchanged on BBC’s Question Time.

Fortunately, all is not yet lost. Yousaf does get it right. In an open letter he penned to Swinson, he said: “I have heard countless incredible stories of young people in Govan who have transformed their lives precisely because they have aspiration, drive and ambition – not a lack of it. […] I am also concerned that the premise of your point suggests the only measurement of success is university attendance, which is not just outdated, but quite frankly wrong”.

It’s time our “leaders” cottoned on to this. Because until they do, they’ll continue to fail children, they’ll continue to fail parents, they’ll continue to fail schools, they’ll continue to fail businesses, and they’ll continue to fail society, just at the very moment when we as a country are crying out for a measure, not of university entrance rates, but of social cohesion.

Martin Bloomfield runs the website DyslexiaBytes, delivers training in special educational needs and neurodivergent thinking as a freelancer and for York Associates, and teaches Intercultural Perspectives on SEN at Leeds City College.