Tuesday 7 September 2021

The two useful things I was taught at school.

 I wasn't planning on writing a blog today. I was not feeling inspired by anything, and I am short on time due to work requirements to research the things in the pipeline properly. However a tweet by one of my favourite customers, Pat Kane, singer of Hue and Cry and always a pleasure to have a chat with when he rehearses at our studios could not pass without comment. Pat tweeted.

 If I am honest I only learned two useful things from my less than illustrious educational career. The first was how to paint, hang paper and decorate. When I was at Finchley Catholic High School, they would send less academic students to the curriculum centre in Byng Road, Barnet. There I studied Building Studies, to O Level (which was aligned to the City and Guilds course). That was one of my two B's at O level (the other being religious studies, coming from a strict Catholic family, it was hard not to pass that). I worked for a painter/decorator for three years on leaving school. It fitted in well with my music and I earned decent money. So that was undeniably useful.

The other thing that was perhaps ten times more useful was not from any lessons I had. At FCHS my physics teacher was the rather amazing Mr John Shuttler. For some reason that I've never understood, he took me under his wing and spent time trying to encourage me. He saw something that even I didn't know wasn't there. At my most alienated, aged about 13/14 he took me in and encouraged me. I was having problems with my English teacher. I'd sort of given up on it. He gave me a cup of tea and asked what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to be a musician. He asked me who I liked, I reeled of a long list of artists, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Vibrators, etc. He asked if I liked any 'more established artists'. I replied Joni Mitchell. His eyes lit up. He loved Joni Mitchell. We had a long chat about her work. He then said "Do you think Joni Mitchell's songs would be as good if she had a poor command of English?".  I'd really not thought of that. We discussed all manner of songs and it soon became clear that if you wanted to write good lyrics, you needed a good command of English and to understand the pace and structure of the language. We then returned to the subject of my English teacher. I was convinced she hated me. What he told me stopped me in my tracks. "Yes, she does, don't quote me on this though,  she can't stand you, she want's you to fail and do nothing with your life". It was not the response I expected. He then said "So are you going to let her?". He then said "the only person who gets any benefit from your education is you". I realised that I wanted to pass English more than anything. I asked how I could pass. He said "It is simple, do your work to the best of your ability and think!". He then said "You are eloquent, you have the tools, all you need to do is learn to structure it to pass the exams". 

I have never worked harder at anything than I worked on my English at FCHS. It seemed the better I did, the more antagonistic she got. I read the text books, worked on my grammar and punctuation. It doesn't come easy to a dyslexic, but it was important to me. I passed, but by then I'd been shown the door at FCHS, never to return. It was 30 years before I got the chance to thank John Shuttler and he just looked embarrassed. I moved on to  Orange Hill school. At A level I did physics, I just wanted to repay his faith, even though he wasn't my teacher. I even managed to pass it. 

What he taught me was nothing to do with Physics, English or anything else. He taught me that you educate yourself because the better educated you are, the more options you have in your life. It is nothing to do with GCSE's,  O or A levels. It is being able to listen, to appreciate, to learn, to contribute. Would I have written a blog without that inspiration? Would I have had a band? Would I have had a career? Would I have a business? I very much doubt it. He taught me that if you do your homework and prepare yourself, everything works better and you get on. He taught me that hard work is the root of all success, but you need how to apply the work. If you work hard without direction, you are a headless chicken.

Reading Pat Kane's comments about what MIT expect demonstrate why they produce people who are so effective in their field. He is absolutely right about engineers not just needing to understand engineering. When it comes down to it, engineering is about making things better. To do this effectively, you need a mind that doesn't always think in straight lines and realises that there may be another route that doesn't lead to a dead end. To truly understand the world, you need to understand other cultures. To be a successful marine oceanographer, you will need to travel the world and interact with people from other cultures. If you have some idea of their culture and traditions, this can only improve your working career.

When I was seeking work in the mid 80's in IT ( I desperately needed a steady source of income by then), I was one of many candidates for a plumb job at a large UK software company. I later found out that of the shortlist, I had the worst academic qualifications by a long chalk. To my astonishment I got the job. Six months later, I was discussing this with my boss. He laughed and said "You were the only candidate I'd let near a customer, you are more than intelligent enough to do the job, but at your interview, you were the only one who had anything interesting to say". During the interview, when he'd asked me about my time in Stockholm, after I'd finished my A Levels, I'd assumed he'd just been being nice. In actual fact,  that I could go and live in a foreign country and make a new group of friends from scratch was the key factor that swung it for me.  That is why I was so upset when the government abolished the ERASMUS program for UK students wishing to study abroad. Many young people are being denied such opportunities. 

It seems to me that the UK educational system is all about gaining pieces of paper. As an employer, I've interviewed countless sound engineering graduates, who have studied for three years and cannot mic up a drum kit. Many can't interact with customers or even discuss eloquently who their favourite artists are and why. To me these soft skills are vital in creating a rapport in the workplace.

My advice to anyone, in any field is to educate yourself. If you like music, learn about the people who put it together, musicians, producers, songwriters. The chances are this will lead you to other great music. If you like a book, read up on the author, find their influences and check out what inspired them. If you like a work of art, do the same with the work of the artist. If you are visiting a country, read up on its history and culture. That way you can start a conversation with the locals and they will help you see more and have a better time. And if you are choosing a University, choose one that has a progressive view of the arts. Just remember that the day job may ultimately pay the bills, but it is your appreciation of the finer things that will make life worth living. When you work with people 7 hours a day for years on end, it's better if you've got more to chat about than just the thing you are working on. It helps build up a relationship and the more ideas are shared around, the more successful your career will be. Which is why people who study somewhere with the MIT philosophy will ultimately do better. 

In short, whatever we do, we will do it far better if we are not one dimensional 

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