Carol Hunt: ‘College pressure is too much - we need to revive the apprenticeship’
As mental illnesses soar among teenagers Carol Hunt asks if third-level education is always the best option for our kids.
So, your child didn’t get the points for the college place they wanted. Or maybe they’re not even sure exactly what college course they want to do. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?
Three to four years spent studying something that your teenager may not be completely committed to is a very long time. And that's before you add in the increasing need for most students to go on to do a masters of some form of post-grad study. I mean, who gets anywhere with just a basic degree these days? It’s hardly surprising that kids now get so stressed out when they sit their exams.
Every day they hear that the only way to get on in life is to knuckle down and get those Leaving Cert points. And if they don’t get enough the first year — not because of any fault of their own but because suddenly half the country’s Leaving Cert students have decided that architecture or dentistry is the way to go in 2015 and the points have gone through the roof — what do they do? Settle for something else as long as it’s in a reputable university? Repeat the Leaving Cert at one of those soulless, expensive grind schools? Throw in the towel and head off to Thailand for a gap-year or five? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?
The figures show that about €15 million is wasted each year due to students dropping out of third-level first-year courses (29pc from Institutes of Technology and 11pc from universities) and yet, increasingly, we’re pushing all our kids towards third-level education that may not be the best choice for them or for the society they will be living in.
So why are we doing it?
Here, I have to put up my hand and say that I am “one of those parents” who regularly discusses with my kids “which” university they will attend when they leave school, and not “would” they like to go to college in the first place. Why? I think it’s because of the progress of the middle classes.
I come from a very working-class family. My dad was a plumber, my relatives include mechanics, electricians, carpenters and various other trades. University then was for “rich kids” only and not for ordinary people who actually made things and fixed things and worked by using their hands. Most aspiring working-class parents put their sons into apprenticeships and their daughters into secretarial schools.
Even when I left school, university was still considered by many to be only for swots — or for kids whose parents didn’t mind “wasting” a few grand while they swanned around UCD studying Arts degrees, a qualification which was looked down on by many as being completely useless in the “real world”. The joke at the time was: “What do you say to an Arts Degree graduate? A Big Mac and chips, please”.
But then came the great middle-class surge. Niamh Bhreathnach as Labour Minister for Education introduced free third-level education and suddenly going to university became a rite of passage for the aspiring working-middle classes.
Third-level education —formerly the preserve of the traditional middle classes, became (technically) available to all.
“It’s free”, parents all over Ireland were saying to reluctant children, and you’ll be just as good as the solicitors/doctors/bankers kids down the road. Open those books. Get studying. What can you lose? And I admit, I am one of those parents.
I regularly tell my children that of course they will go on to university, when I should really wait and see if that is what will actually suit their talents and their ambitions. Mea culpa! But it’s natural for us to want for our children what so many of us — or our parents — didn’t have themselves, isn’t it?
And so, thousands of Irish students are being funnelled into an academic system which may be totally unsuitable for many of them. A fact which may go some way to explaining why student mental illnesses have sky-rocketed; maladies like anxiety and depression and self-harm are increasing amongst our kids in third-level colleges and some of this problem has to be because some kids are square pegs in round holes.
The need for counselling has increased.
“The reason we’re seeing more students looking to talk is two-pronged. There’s an increased complexity of mental health problems out there at the moment and there’s more and more people willing to come forward for help.
“Years ago, it wasn’t acceptable to look for help but now it is,” said Dr Declan Aherne of the Irish Association of University and College counsellors earlier this year. But even earlier, before they get to college, students are facing more pressures because of our demand that they get the right amount of Leaving Cert points and that coveted third-level place.
Family therapist and psychologist, Fergus Heffernan, has spoken to me before about the terrible stress and strains this is putting on our kids. He thinks we’ve “lost the plot” where exams and the points system is concerned and that our children are facing mental stresses that we never did.
Heffernan told me: “The difference in our day was that we had choices; choices that are not available to kids today. Yes, some children went on to third-level college or university, but many others did apprenticeships, went into the family business, joined the guards, or even the priesthood. Everyone had a place,” he said, “regardless of their exam results.”
But 40 years later: “We have lumped everything into college,” he said. “Ninety percent of students now take grinds. If you don’t go to college, you’re viewed as a failure. Education is now an industry — one which doesn’t serve the best needs of our kids, and consequently, we have a ‘tsunami of mental health problems’ facing our children when they get to third level.”
Over in mainland Europe, they’re not so dumb. In countries like Germany, Austria, France, Portugal etc, a dual education system is in place, which combines apprenticeships in a company and vocational education at a vocational school in one course. In France, dual education (formation en alternance) has undergone a boom since the 1990s, with information technology being particularly popular.
Recently, on a trip to Austria, I passed a group of very smartly dressed young boys — about 15 or 16 years of age. They looked as if they were students in a very posh private school. Not at all, I was told. They were all apprentices at the school for hotel management nearby.
We have a serious dearth of apprenticeships in Ireland. Last year, the government set up the Apprenticeship Council to address the low-level of apprenticeships, and industry groups, many of which have long called for reform, have warmly welcomed the move.
Meanwhile, parents like me — for whom the best decision ever was [at the age of 32] going to university and on to post-grad study — have to admit that what we want for our kids may not be what is best for them.
There are more ways to get to a good, satisfying career than through the university system. We need to get over our bourgeois snobbery about third-level college being somehow a cut above learning a trade or a craft.
Our kids — and our society — will thank us.