When I was 16 I failed all my O-levels, bar a grade C in English Literature, and concluded I wasn’t academically bright. Instead of retaking my O–levels, doing some A-levels and trying to get a place at university, I decided to pursue a career as a tradesman and enrolled on a residential work experience course. It was a bit like a boarding school, except it offered students a technical and vocational education rather than an academic one.
It was a miserable period of my life. The stench of failure hung over the institution like a toxic cloud and my fellow students and I were treated as if we were semi-delinquents who might at any moment go off the rails. I was apprenticed to a succession of skilled tradesmen, but they regarded me with suspicion and had little or no patience for teaching me the rudiments of their professions. Hardly surprising, given the premise of the school. In effect, the local education authority was telling these proud working men, most of whom were exceptionally competent, that their livelihoods were last-ditch alternatives for students of below-average ability. (To read more, click here.)