Back in September 1999 Tony Blair announced that 50% of young people should go into higher education, which is a fine target if it meant that 50% of young people were going into a field that was relevant and of value to both them and the country. What happened was a drive to get young people to pay for expensive degrees that they did not need and had little value to them or the country.
I would not want you to think that I am in any way against degrees. There are many professions that suit an extensive period of academic study, but equally there are those that do not. I am genuinely of the opinion that many of our graduates have been poorly served by an education system that values qualifications over expertise.
Successive governments have devalued and decimated vocational education in a large percentage of schools and technical colleges, with young people being defined as failures if they do not follow the route to university. Why are politicians and academics so opposed to people using their brains and their hands in rewarding careers that produce tangible results for the economy and the participants?
At the point Mr Blair made the announcement I knew it was wrong, as did many employers who were crying out for skilled engineers and craftspeople. I have shared my views widely with anyone who would listen, sadly to little effect, so why raise it again today?
In our industry you can do a degree in furniture design and leave university with a debt of £40,000 with the mostly likely outcome that you will be offered a position as a trainee, because you have no practical skills or experience of much value to a business. If you left school at eighteen and went into an apprenticeship at the end of three years you would have no debt, in fact you would have been earning during your training and if you had done well, you would be well ahead of the new trainee and on a significantly higher salary.
There are too many young people who have been let down by a system that is not fit for the purpose of providing British manufacturing business with the employees and entrepreneurs it needs.
During lockdown I started to notice that people were filling their time with activities that focussed mostly on creating something, a huge flowering of creativity due to an enforced captivity, where many people could not do their normal jobs. People started to paint or learn an instrument, make their own cards, started knitting and all manner of other uplifting tasks that made them feel good.
If you want to get a sense of what the British people value, you can look at what they watch and listen to. Social media was awash with creative content but just looking at the television schedules identified an interest in craft and skills that has been growing and diversifying for many years. The Repair Shop started on BBC 2 in 2017 with sixteen episodes, by series 4 it was on primetime BBC 1 with thirty episodes and series 5 has increased to forty. Another huge hit is DIY SOS, who would have thought that a programme about big-hearted hardworking builders would be prime time tv. I am not blind to the emotional messages of these programmes but what I think people really love is seeing somebody doing something and doing it well, as well as learning about how it is done. This is craft as a spectator sport with the audience cheering the experts on to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The tv schedules are full of creative programming with many of them being huge hits, Bake Off, Sewing Bee, Strictly Come Dancing, The Great Pottery Throw Down to mention just a few.
There is very little good about the current situation but if it has had the effect of making people value craft and skill and encouraged people to take up hobbies or change career to something more tangible and rewarding, then something good will have come out it. Hopefully young people will realise that they have more options and avenues to a rewarding life.