Comment: This obsession of sending all children to college must stop

An apprenticeship is a combination of paid work experience and college-based learning, generally over a four-year period. Stock image
An apprenticeship is a combination of paid work experience and college-based learning, generally over a four-year period. Stock image
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Over the years we have all wondered at the German economic miracle and how it continues to be miraculous. There is no magic involved, but there are a number of key elements to the German system, not least among them a strong system of vocational training and apprenticeship.

The traditional trades along with other occupations and skills are valued and supported by a structured system of vocational education that delivers. Meanwhile, in this country, we have been scrambling around the woolly heights of academia looking for ways to upskill our young population.

We are a nation of educational snobs. The problem with snobbery is that it is one directional, it is only interested in vertical movement and is obsessed with ladders, lifts and hot air balloons. Snobbery blinds us to what is around us.

The first step on this sky-road is a good Leaving Cert with perfect points; the next is a college course in some ivy-covered Victorian institution. As for the third step, well, we don't care really. We often don't mind what our offspring do with their years of academic pursuit: "Oh, he has degrees coming out his ears but look at him, at home minding the children". The important bit, as far as we are concerned, is that he has the degrees coming out his ears.

According to reliable figures, over 7,000 first years drop out of third-level colleges in Ireland every year. This is not to mention the thousands of others that are hanging in there, convinced they have no alternative.

Others feel too guilty to tell their hard-pressed parents they are unhappy, while more- already cynical and hard - have decided that grinning and bearing are essential coping mechanisms in the face of the human condition. It has to be said that a great number find their feet, find a course they like and a decent career.

Our obsession with going to college and with sending ALL our children to college is narrowing rather than broadening our sense of what we value in terms of life choices. It is also narrowing the field of life opportunities for our young people. Photographs of oneself decked out in a mortarboard, fancy gown and holding a scroll are not essential for a contented and fulfilled life.

I've had occasion of late to peruse the background material for a publication to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Castlelyons Co-op in East Cork. The material consists almost entirely of the recollections of people associated with the Co-op as employees or farmers.

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At one stage in its history, it employed over 200 people and created a multitude of spin-off enterprises. It is now part of the Glanbia family.

These reminiscences exude an extraordinary sense of joy and life. The majority of the contributors went to work in the Co-op directly from school, be it primary or secondary. One man Paddy O'Leary wrote:

"When I left school, I joined the Merchant Navy as a deck cadet in Plymouth after my Leaving Cert. The life at sea didn't suit me, so I came home and was kicking a ball around the village and one day a neighbour came up to my house and asked me if I would be interested in a temporary job in the Co-op.

"I said I'd go down for a couple of months. I can remember him saying the job would entail writing dockets and answering the phone. So I went down for my temporary job in 1969 and I stayed for 41 years, ending up as manager of the grain and production manager."

A young man, Will Daly, for whom work experience during transition year led to full-time work in the Co-op talks of a lovely life.

"I was offered a full-time job in November 2010 by the branch manager and grabbed it with both hands.

"I feel that working in the local creamery has really made me feel part of the local community, we are the first to hear about any births, death and marriages in the villages, we are experts on the weather and I could tell you every dry summer and wet winter since time began, and we often solve the world's problems at the counter - and that's all before tea time!"

While every community may not be blessed with such ready local employment, these stories show there is a life-path outside academia.

I was delighted to hear on RTÉ last week that a new initiative, Generation Apprenticeship, driven by the Apprenticeship Council, is seeking to expand the disciplines and skills covered by the apprenticeship system. The council is calling for proposals from people across the range of sectors and disciplines that wish to be considered for inclusion in the apprenticeship system. The insurance sector is leading the way and has chosen apprenticeship as a key way to train would-be insurance specialists.

I think this is a great move. Many young people at 17 and 18 will learn far more easily on the hoof while gathering real-life experience. They can reflect, academically, on this experience at a later stage. I remember studying philosophy at 17 years of age - a waste of time - I was trying to grapple with questions I had never even thought of asking. My current trade as a journalist is best honed on the hoof, working beside an older hack in the courts, at the council meetings or, indeed, outside the mart while the place is being blockaded by farmers.

A welcome outcome from the development of a decent apprenticeship system should see an end to the current informal and infernal internship practices that are nothing short of slave labour. An apprenticeship guarantees clarity in relation to the rights, duties and obligations of the apprentice and the employing mentor.

I think it's time we took stock of the ingrained elitism in our approach to education. Every September there is an unholy scramble for college places, and by January the dropout trickle turns to a flood. I have a friend who works in a third-level institution and is under subtle but constant pressure to produce 'good results' when correcting papers. He tells me a sizeable portion of exam scripts are the clearly work of people in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. Meanwhile, we have a housing crisis because we don't have people with the capacity or the skills to build the houses we need.

Last week, I referred to sound advice from my writing mentors, according to another piece of wisdom from that same source, good writing shows you and bad writing tells you.

A lot of our young people would be far better occupied with their feet on the shop floor standing beside a mentor rather than sitting on their backsides in a lecture theatre.

For information on apprenticeships in Ireland contact or go online to

To make an apprenticeship proposal, you must do so before Friday, September 1, 2017

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