University not only option, says Shropshire headteacher

A Shropshire headteacher today claimed youngsters needed a dose of tough love as he said university should no longer be seen as the ultimate path to success – even for the most gifted of pupils.

Tim Firth
Tim Firth

Tim Firth, of Wrekin College, made his comments as the school opened a new £1 million purpose-built business school.

He said soaring tuition fees and a changing jobs market meant headteachers had to look at alternatives for even the brightest pupils, as he said university was no longer the automatic choice.

Mr Firth said the new facility, which marked the school’s biggest single investment in a project showed how committed they were to a new approach to education.

The idea will be to regularly have business leaders use the new school to help teach job place skills in a setting which resembles the corporate world rather than the classroom.

The state-of- the-art facility which was opened by Nick Wheeler who founded Charles Tyrwhitt, a clothing retailer, on Thursday (January 26), features a boardroom, breakout area for collaborations, hot-desking and a lecture theatre.

Mr Firth said the new addition was answering concerns from business leaders that the “snowflake generation” was producing graduates who were just not fit for the workplace having failed to acquire key skills to create resilience and a can-do attitude.

“Young people today live in a very different world to the one we did and the challenges are new but they are such that we as schools need to think even more about how we prepare them for the world outside of the academic arena,” he added.

“University is not the only option. It has become a buyers’ market and too often it has placed too much unnecessary pressure on youngsters including the most gifted and able academically to suggest there is only one path for them.

“We need to look at how we educate and nurture the whole child.

“Alongside the academic drive and the push for A-stars we need to be looking at how we give children the skills to cope with real life which are necessary even for those who do choose university.”

“The business school will see school and the corporate world blended on a daily basis where there will be events for start-ups, those returning to work, CV writing clinics, breakfast meetings for the business community alongside the usual business studies classes.

“It is important to create opportunities for children to experience a taste of real life much sooner than we may have felt the need to do in previous generations to show their skills may lie in all kinds of different areas.

“We are pushing our pupils to aim for their very best and if that is a string of A-stars that is what they will achieve but we also want them to be able to pitch a business idea, to be able to manage other people or a budget so that they will be ready for life outside of school.

“It is a tricky world to navigate but one which has so much promise. We often talk about how we are currently preparing youngsters for jobs that don’t even exist yet - well then we should be broadening our horizons in terms of what we teach and how we lead the way.

“We need to go back to putting value on apprenticeships, to creating good entrepreneurs, bosses and employees, key skills for the workplace rather than just great scholars.”

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Comments for: "University not only option, says Shropshire headteacher"

thomas the tank

Mr Firth said the new addition was answering concerns from business leaders that the “snowflake generation” was producing graduates who were just not fit for the workplace having failed to acquire key skills to create resilience and a can-do attitude.

“Young people today live in a very different world to the one we did and the challenges are new but they are such that we as schools need to think even more about how we prepare them for the world outside of the academic arena,” he added.

Sensible words and something that I and other employers have been saying for years but whether the snowflake attitude can be changed so late in their developing years is another question. I don't hold out much hope, myself.

Mr Majestic

If your children can be brought up in a secure, safe and in my view traditional family home they are over halfway to having a lovely life.

You then need to guide them down a road of employment they want to go down, not your chosen path , you had your chance.

University is now seen as a must GO you go to shrewsbury sixth form you are assumed to be going on to uni .

However Schools need to be looked at as many teachers talk down trades etc as "surely you aspire to more than that" When in reality a good carpenter, plumber, brick layer electrician especially if self employed can dwarf a teachers wage and clearly they seem to be a happy bunch as we do not see them moaning about wages, conditions etc .

However It does not matter what a person does for a living as long as they are happy in their job, that adds to a wonderful adult life . Why do a job you detest or dislike or it makes you seriously stressed out a little stress is good however.

Seems to me utter madness to go to uni as many do and get a useless degree useless is different to pointless as NO degree is pointless if the fellow wants to spend a few years studying that topic.

However useless degree result in uni fees being written off down the line someone picks that bill up as with a bankrupt.

Uni is not the be and end all, you can go down many routes to achieve a degree and not build huge debt .You also in many cases do not need a degree.

The young should be told to follow their dream not their parents dream ,at the same time we do need to put some reality into if you go to uni and achieve a useless degree you will come out and end up doing a dud job you hate and have debt around your neck until in middle age they tell you we will right that off as you will never earn enough to pay it . We also need to guide them away from some of these silly dreamer type college courses such as drama etc , we also seem to send females down the road of hair and beauty to the point the market is saturated . I think the government should actually create a good quality caring qualifications and that should be reflected in good wages for those roles .


At long last an education professional with wisdom.

Best Star article in years.


University is not the only route to good career but certainly helps in the log run . There is a glass ceiling on aspirations if you do not go to university. Strangely it does not matter what the subject was, just the experience. However it is now the reservation of of the well off, but that is not the end of the world for anybody. A degree level qualification can be achieved through the earn as you learn system. It will take the person through to management and after that it's not qualification but performance that is the main driver of careers.

Getting into the system that provides the entry to decent job prospects is the difficult bit.

It starts very simply. you need a decent collection of GCSE's in subjects appropriate to your aspirations. At least five of them. The choices then are go on to sixth form college and do "A" levels and go on to university or find an apprenticeship. But not just any apprenticeship, it has to a "technician or equal" one which involves taking a vocational qualification. The end product of the vocational qualification must be a degree level qualification. It will not be an undergraduates degree but the equivalent of a foundation degree. That is the edge that the undergraduate will always have. However there is no reason why post graduate or professional institute examinations can not take people further up the qualifications ladder;

See the The National Qualifications Framework for details of the value of different sorts of qualifications. It will apply differently according to the route you choose through to high level education. Think about the career you aspire to and check what the qualification to practice are and which institute it is that licences the individual to practice. There are still some careers that require an undergraduate degree to practice. It is important to know before you start that these glass ceilings do or don't exist. It could change the career you want to do. To be doctor you need a medical degree and a lawyer needs a law degree. You can become a licentiate but that is the glass ceiling. A licentiate is a very good job, you could earn £60K a year but it's what pushes the income over the £100K level that matters if you are ambitious.

All that said the statistics are very informative. The Office of National Statistics is informative but you must understand what the numbers mean. When they talk about graduates they define it as anyone with a higher qualification than an "A" level. They say that about 50% of the working population are graduates. In fact the numbers of under graduate university degrees is about 25% of the working population. The other 25% are people with vocational qualifications or FE diplomas. 50% of the population are not graduates in ONS terms. They may well have vocational qualification or none. An electrician might be graduate or not, dependant on how far he went up the vocational qualification ladder. He does not need to reach the top before being licensed as an electrician. The same applies to plumbers who need only certain certificates to be licensed but these sorts of licences will require the applicant to demonstrate practical skills. These are technician trained but not necessarily to foundation degree level. Most craftsmen are practically trained but might be expected to have some qualifications at relatively low levels.

It is vitally important to understand before accepting a course of action what the final out come could be. Far too many colleges are selling education for their own sake, it's a business there to make profits so beware of what they are selling and ask your self what lies beyond the course you are doing.

The next important thing is transferable skills and qualifications. That is a matter the subject matter of the course set out on. Media studies is a popular course but suffers the highest levels of employment below graduate level. Their skills do not transfer readily. The best transferable skills are in medicine and engineering. The ONS has statistics on all of the outcomes by age thirty and five years after qualifying. They are worth looking at.

In my view the big problem we have is that young people have free choice of which subject they do in both vocational and university education. That does not equip employers with the right skills mix. An apprenticeship operated by a company is more likely to have a job at the other end than media studies degree. Education of any sort up to degree level is all about entering the world of work. From that point on there a commitment to life long education to stay current with your chosen career within employment but it's how you enter the world of work that decides working life career. Experience starts to count more than qualifications.

A vocational trained and qualified person is more likely to gain employment than under graduates because their career course was set earlier and their skills and qualification more targeted. Particularly in the high skills areas of engineering. But if you want to enter careers like retail or sales the skill transfer is much easier but the pay is lower.

Qualified teacher is a good example of the qualifications conundrum. To be what they call a qualified teacher requires a basic degree plus a degree in education to be a run of the mill teacher. However there are other routes into teaching by doing a degree level vocational qualification and taking a course in education later in life. These people tend to teach in further education where their technical qualifications equip them better to teach advanced subjects.

My advice to anyone is to seek out an area of skills shortage, consider the longevity of the skill and then sort out a route through education to enter and advance. Ironically certain types of engineer skill will run out early but the skills are transferable where as hairdressing is likely to have high longevity but low pay and low transferable skills. In all cases you should consider if the career has an opportunity to go self employed and build your own business. A licensed technician can do that relatively easily once licensed. To that degree vocational skills and qualifications are more useful than an under graduate degree but limited to employment by others. Under graduates have no practical skills on entering the world of work they have to develop them in employment. They are employed on their potential to evolve. The vocationally qualified can demonstrate skills . So the real question is not where will I be at Twenty One but where will I be at Thirty. The best way to understand that is to look at the data available from the ONS and look at outcomes. Only outcomes can inform the choice at sixteen. Academics are not always the best advisers because they are overwhelmingly interested in selling their own career as a form of self affirmation. To them everything leads to a degree at university.

The real issues are how hard you prepared to work in poverty before entering the world of work and how hard you are prepared to work after. The whole thing being moderated by you own ability to learn and work. Then what is the best route to where you want to be at thirty. What are the practical limitations i.e. to be vet means at least seven years before you are employable. In that time you have to live on grants and loans which must be paid back later. A vocational route is earn and lean but will never make you a vet.

Everybody is different and the most important thing is what your own ability is to live, learn and earn. The route is different for everybody but is almost bound to change between sixteen and thirty as the individual matures and takes on adult aspirations. Make sure that what ever course you choice there are transferable skills and qualifications along the way which can be used if you decide to change course.

Some career paths have high earning potential early but may not have long term prospects. For example being a plasterer can be very rewarding early, no particular qualifications required just learn skills and work hard, but by the time your forty you are “odds on” to have a damaged back. How will you earn then? What are your transferable skills?

The biggest problem in this country is the relative value put of different professionals. Accountants are higher valued than engineers. That economical tragic. The Engineer is required to invent, innovate and produce the means of production of wealth. The accountant records the financial story of hoe it happens and takes some guesses on how investment could work out. Entrepreneurs back engineers despite what accountants say because they business savvy. We must have Doctors and Dentists and other support professions but we need to understand who are the wealth creators. For the last thirty years of monetarism we have looked to the City to provide that but the banker’s crash has shown us how vulnerable that is. We need to balance our economy with wealth generation by making things instead of importing things, That is the big battle today. Free trade verses protectionism and Globalisation verses a sustaining economy. if we decide to re-balance the economy the demand for the future will be in production skills rather than the service sector and attitudes will have to change. The relative status of Engineers and Technician will rise together their earnings potential. Careers may depend on these issues. We can see it in the politics of today. change is in the air. it is volatile and unpredictable. But it will decide the best careers for the next thirty years. Needs to be thought about before deciding on a career for the next fifty years.


There are some good points here as Mrs Maj says about the snobbery regarding trades but she then misses the growing market in entertainment and leisure [silly dreamer type college courses such as drama etc , ] We have events managers, activities co-ordinators, street theatre and even personal trainers these days and the confidence these sorts of courses instil can lead onto other work. My niece did a media degree and has been in the police for a decade until she decided on a change and decided to undergo nurse training.

My sister who became a psychiatrist never had any education in drama and struggled to have the benefit of confidently speaking at medical conferences when presenting a paper.

Of course private education itself is a huge advantage to a young person and these schools and colleges are seeing the advantage to their leavers of increasing links with businesses.

State schools are difficult to negotiate these days. Some are better than others but even then the discipline and quality has gone and much will depend on luck as to how many unwilling students there are in any particular year. Those expelled just end up getting moved around.

A degree can be more important proof of ability when attending a rubbish state school.

Schools have never been much good at career advice when staff stay for decades and have never worked anywhere themselves outside of the education system so lack experience.