‘Unworthy’ practical subjects are just as important as academic ones

By Keith Budge

Leading a school with a working farm and a strong tradition, not only in design but in doing and making, I am always keen to enter the fray when discussion turns to the ‘academic vs vocational’ debate, as happened with head teacher, Andrew Fleck’s comments, picked up late last year.

It is not only that the Government appears to favour the skills associated with academic subjects over those linked with practical ones, but it is the broader, cruder categorisation of subjects by their perceived difficulty and academic utility that grates.

We all accept that our buildings must be designed by highly qualified people; and yes, many would-be architects study art as an A-level, yet too often A-level art suffers condescension as a ‘non-academic’ or practical subject that isn’t really worthy of the attention of the brightest and most ambitious.

“What matters most is that schools develop students who love thinking inquisitively and have the gumption to make things happen.”

More broadly, the driving of wedges between arbitrary categories risks unhelpful polarities – academic versus technical, science versus arts and humanities. One of the refreshing features of a school like Bedales is that, in selecting their subjects, even at A-level, our students will build their choices around the subjects that they feel most passion for.

For example, while in many schools the classic very capable mathematician might choose maths, further maths, physics and chemistry, here, he or she is just as likely to put art, English or history into the mix.

Even if a likely career choice as an engineer or a medic means that in the new three A-level system your main curriculum is confined to two sciences and maths, our enrichment programme, running parallel to A-levels, invites students to build a cross-disciplinary element into their programme. So that proto-engineer might find herself taking Russian for beginners or doing an introduction to philosophy.

Talk to employers, listen to the CBI, and bring any group of twenty-somethings into the debate and you will find a widely held scepticism about the way in which schools prepare their students for the world of work.

Girls are much more likely to want to see physics being applied in context, says Prof Reiss  

Add in a reading of, say, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and your scepticism will increase yet further.

Listen to the discussions going on, for example, among the soothsayers at the World Economic Forum, and you will find that the skills that our young people need to give them the best chance of leading fulfilling and successful working lives have a distinctly practical set of aptitudes attached to them: collaboration and teamwork; communication skills; an ability to work in a cross-disciplinary way; the facility to work with people of different cultures and backgrounds; and that appetite for life-long learning which means that they can keep acquiring new skills.

Too readily schools become obsessed by such easy polarities as STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) good and hard – humanities, if not bad, a tad wishy-washy and certainly soft.

Two of our school aims I treasure are these: our first which commits us to ‘develop inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought’; and our second which prizes ‘doing and making’.

“There is a widely held scepticism about the way in which schools prepare their students for the world of work.”

I am proud of the fact that at Bedales you can see students of all ages and abilities involved in what we call outdoor work – anything from apple-juice-making through to oak-framing, via tending to some grunty and muddy pigs.

It cheers me that a top sixth form scientist is football goalie one moment, baking Christmas puddings the next and now is playing his trumpet for the three nights of our annual rock show – whose complex technicalities are run by a very able group of student technicians.

The zigs and zags in the careers of so many of the people whose lives we regard as the epitome of success point to an appetite for doing plenty and crossing boundaries. No one smacked Leonardo’s hand and told him not to be so silly drawing helicopters; Steve Jobs roamed across disciplines; Heston Blumenthal has strayed beyond chemistry into a very practical subject and endeared himself to our taste buds.

What matters most is that schools develop students who love thinking inquisitively and have the gumption to make things happen.

Keith Budge, headmaster, Bedales School