Wrekin College head: ‘The idea that all should go to university is creating absurd and unnecessary pressure’

Tim Firth on how Wrekin College is making its pupils more employable and why the higher education system needs a radical rethink

Save for a fee increase-motivated dip around 2011-12, the percentage of 17-30 year olds entering higher education for the first time has steadily increased over the past 10-15 years.

The Department for Education’s 2017 research report entitled Encouraging People into University stated that attending university is a: “life-changing opportunity that can bring high returns to both the individual and country”, and “in an economy increasingly driven by knowledge and ideas, the supply of highly-skilled graduates is likely to become ever more important over coming years. Therefore, it is vital to sustain high levels of university attendance and a pipeline of graduates to meet the needs of employers and society”.

But Wrekin College’s head, Tim Firth, wants to reverse this trend: “The idea that all should go to university is creating absurd and unnecessary pressure on a lot of people who actually don’t want to go, and shouldn’t actually go.

“It’s almost teaching them that anything they do, that isn’t [university], is a failure or a shortfall, whereas in fact, it could be better than or equivalent to.”

He points out that independent schools are particularly guilty of having a blinkered approach to post-18 options for pupils, which he describes as “a bit odd” because “there are many, many more options”.

“At the moment the world – certainly this country – needs a hell a lot of people to do other things.”

If universities diversified their offering with more vocational courses, Tim would be happier, so long as the end result was “a whole bunch of different people doing different things”.

Wrekin College head The idea that all should go to university is creating absurd and unnecessary pressure2

His statements carry particular weight this year when many students still didn’t have any university offers by the time A-level results day rolled around in August. Due to higher numbers of applicants and rejection rates, and more conservative offer-making from institutions, the percentage of 18-year-olds not holding an offer before results has risen from 6% to 9% over the past two years.

This summer also saw the most UK students in over 10 years entering clearing, and those that have graduated are demanding refunds for teaching lost to strikes and Covid. And, yet, students are keener than ever to head straight to uni, with record numbers shunning a gap year.

Tim says the current recruiting market is leading universities to deceive students with “ludicrous degrees”. 

“I think if [universities] were honest about it, they would be possibly less successful but it would be better and children would be freed up. Breeding young people to think they need to go to university and making them think they’re academically really able and they’re going to a really good one might set them up to be defensive. 

“It actually takes them longer to get used to the workplace, and they’re less fit for it because they don’t think that what they’re being asked to do in the workplace is aligned with their previous aspiration of a degree. There’s some misalignment, which I think leads to unhelpful labelling of the self.

“The danger is that it churns out people who aren’t that numerate or literate even after they’ve got their degrees, and you do wonder what it was for.”

The ‘passion degree’

A university graduate himself, Tim sees no problem with the ‘passion’ degree that leads nowhere but deeper into a subject a student loves, so long as there are “no other pretensions about it”. Such a degree won’t do anything for your employability, he says, adding that he left university totally unprepared for the workplace – “I was absolutely hopeless” – and gradually figured out that teaching was what he wanted to do.

Whilst he loved his time reading English, and is glad with where he’s ended up, he knows there are other people who’d benefit from a more practical and integrated higher education experience. 

“I think had I, for example, decided I wanted to be a teacher. There’s no reason why I couldn’t have got a degree whilst learning how to teach at the same time.”

Wrekin College in Shropshire is working hard on giving pupils alternatives to traditional university courses. Its purpose-built business school teaches employability through talks, events, self-startup opportunities and entrepreneurial challenges, and this year three leavers picked competitive apprenticeships at PwC and Deloitte over university degrees.

But Wrekin ‘isn’t daft’, says Tim. It knows many bright pupils come to the school in order to get into good universities, and doesn’t intend to stop encouraging them to do so.

“We teach people there might be more valuable things than university. We want them to vote in to what they do rather than just default. People who go straight to the workplace and earn money absolutely command the respect of this school.

“I think for children it’s hanging above their heads, this myth that you’ve got to go to uni. People get very wedded to the narratives of these universities, who claim to be the third best at this, the tenth best at this, which are absurd.

“But it suits a lot of schools not to talk about it and to shut it up. Because, of course, children get the degrees, the schools can say they got their children to university. 

“It needs a radical rethink.”

“We do put our pupils through multitasking scenarios. We keep it broad here for longer without any doubt. And they do have to do quite a lot of formal and informal, team leading and taking care of other people – they end up directing plays, whether they’ve been in and one or not, for example, because everybody’s got to have a go.”

Why does Tim think pupils should lead these rich lives, broad in experience?

“Because you don’t know what’s in you. And I think if you do stuff, you say yes to stuff and have a go at it, I think you always surprise yourself. And even if you didn’t like it, it normally taught you something or made you stronger, or gave you more empathy. 

“I think that if you stay too narrow, you never find out about that kind of stuff. Stretching and challenging yourself is important. 

“A good school teaches people they can have a go. They might find it difficult, but they’ll keep going. There are very, very few people in any job who are perfect or do it really, really well. It’s quite freeing to realise that.”

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