Public schoolboys thrive while student nurses struggle

25 Feb 2013 @ 1.43 pm
| Opinion

Bootham School old boys, from left: musician Benjamin  Francis Leftwich; Joseph Rowntree; and Stuart Rose, former boss of Marks and Spencer
Bootham School old boys, from left: musician Benjamin Francis Leftwich; Joseph Rowntree; and Stuart Rose, former boss of Marks and Spencer
Buying education gives York public schoolboys a head start in life says Geoff Beacon – but he’s more worried about under-trained student nurses

I start with a prejudice loosely based on experience. I believe there is a distinct difference between old boys from St Peter’s School and those from Bootham School. And yes, I do know that girls are now admitted to both schools.

My prejudice says that St Peter’s boys are more forceful and Bootham boys are more thoughtful.

A quick look at comments on mumsnet supports my generalisation. One comment is:

At the moment we are struggling to choose between these two schools for DS to board at. We chose York to be near family etc. DS is an all rounder so academically wise he would cope with a more academically focused school (St Peter’s) or a more relaxed school (Bootham). As St Peter’s do the IGCSE it is impossible to compare results although Bootham does seem to be higher up the tables for A levels. We are also impressed by different aspects of both schools – music and art at Bootham and sport at St Peter’s.

Another is:

From what I know of the two schools I think either would suit an all rounder – if interested in sport however there aren’t many options at Bootham for it whilst at Peter’s there are less music/arts oppourtunities. I would also say that I prefer the ethos of Bootham and the idea that everyone is equal. You also see a lot fewer flash cars going into the school than you see entering St Peter’s!

I have kept another comment made by a politics and lecturer in a northern university (not York) from decade ago. He said:

The expansion of higher education has meant that we have many more students from leafy suburbs who have straight ‘A’s at A-level. They are socially confident, forceful but dim.

Could this have referred to some of the ex-pupils of Bootham and St Peter’s? Both schools instil confidence and some forcefulness, important characteristics for progressing in life, and I am sure they work hard at getting their dimmest pupils the best possible results. Is this a problem?

It’s not a problem for the pupils. Being confident makes people happier and being forceful – but not too forceful – helps them find a place in society. In the past, I have even arranged for friends to go for assertiveness training, a slightly muted form of forcefulness. Before I became so old and angry I could have benefited from some forcefulness myself.

The people who do the training point out it is not the same as aggression: Controlled assertiveness/forcefulness gives people the ability to create social boundaries making conflicts less likely.

Helping our children is a natural reaction. My wife and I put some effort into coaching our twin daughters before their eleven plus exam to get into York’s (now closed) Queen Anne’s Grammar School when we felt their junior school had failed them. Queen Anne’s was a good school – for those that passed the exam – but the best education the twins had was at Isobel Dunn’s School of Dancing, once of Parliament Street. That was really character forming: “You may be crying but you keep dancing”.

But what are the consequences of buying education or giving that extra coaching, that gets your children better exam grades than their innate abilities indicate?

Old boys from St Peter's School, from left: broadcaster Harry Gration; confectioner Joseph Terry; and composer John Barry
Old boys from St Peter’s School, from left: broadcaster Harry Gration; confectioner Joseph Terry; and composer John Barry

Education is a positional good

Economists and educators sometimes say that education is a “positional good” meaning that your education will get you better jobs and positions ahead of others. It’s a queue jumper. Getting your children a “good” education means they are likely to get the better jobs that other children with less advantaged education.

What if they got straight-As but are dimmer than the children who didn’t? Some people may consider this unfair, especially to the less advantaged, but is this a problem for wider society?

In York, the professions are populated by old boys of St Peter’s and Bootham but there have been those in the past that have gained the necessary qualifications by harder routes, such as polytechnic and night school. One ex-solicitor tells me: “Once a toff always a toff. Once a chav, always a chav.” For reasons of decency, I cannot repeat here the rest of what this chav-solicitor said but when he was practising, I regarded him as the best solicitor I had used.

Other things being equal, I’d choose a chav-solicitor over a toff-solicitor. Those that choose the toff may well believe that a confident character and private education makes the toff more suitable. They may also believe that connections and status are an advantage but, in most cases, I would choose the sharpness of the chav.

But there is a much bigger problem than choosing a solicitor. This problem is caused by our understanding of the effects of education and training and its relationship with competence. Our policy makers have little knowledge of this relationship. (Perhaps I am being naïve: policy makers – politicians, consultants and academics – might not admit what they know because they have careers to protect.)


“It’s easier to hire a squirrel”

An interesting booklet, Competency Assessment Methods by Lyle Spencer, David McClelland and Singe Spencer, (Hay/McBer Research Press 1994) says:

…an increasing number of studies were published which showed that traditional aptitude and knowledge content tests, as well as school grades and credentials:

1. did not predict job performance or success in life (see McClelland, 1973, for a review of this literature); and

2. were often biased against minorities, women, and persons from lower socioeconomic strata (Fallows 1985).


While changing motives and traits is possible (McClelland and Winter, 1971), the process is lengthy, expensive and difficult. From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the rule is ‘hire for core motivation and trait characteristics, and develop knowledge and skills.’ Most organisations do the reverse: they hire on the basis of educational credentials (MBAs from good schools) and assume the candidates can be indoctrinated with the appropriate motives and traits… in the words of one personnel manager, ‘You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it’s easier to hire a squirrel.’

A related question I sometimes ask is “Would you choose the England football team from the well educated and trained PhDs in sports science? If not, why not?”.

I have written about the aptitude/training mismatch in regard to the performance of computer science graduates in a business context. In Ben said ‘never hire the graduate’, I wrote

As someone who has employed graduates as software engineers over the decades, I would not subscribe to Ben’s “never hire the graduate” but the best software engineer my company has ever employed failed his degree in linguistics. Computer science graduates have not been the best (the best one of these got a third class degree) – but it is a long time since we have employed a computer science graduate.

But let us look at an issue more recently in the news: the nursing profession. The University of York website says:

The BSc Extended Degree in Nursing is aimed at learners without the relevant qualifications to apply for a degree. This programme is the first year of a four year nursing programme. During the first year you will be based at York College. The remaining three years will be spent at the University of York where you will complete your studies leading to a Bsc (Hons) Nursing with professional registration.

The York College website says:

There are no formal entry requirements but applicants must show the motivation, commitment and life skills to cope with the requirements of higher education.

Rather than the “to cope with the requirements of higher education” I would have preferred “to cope with the rigours of a career in nursing”.

The movement of nurse training into universities started with Project 2000 in 1986. This was described in an article in the Nursing Times:

Making a Difference: the implications for nurse education by Maggie Lord

Project 2000 aimed to change nurse education from a system that responded to the workforce requirements of the NHS to one that would expose its students to the effects of mainstream higher education, but many nurses could not see the relevance of this. Their rejection of the academic content of nurse education became a fundamental problem in the implementation of Project 2000.

For integration into higher education to occur, the profession had to accept that theory would enhance practice and not diminish clinical skills. Mackay (1998) identified the influence of individuals who felt that the old system, under which they had trained, was superior. Project 2000 was criticised mainly because the practitioners it produced were not seen as confident in practice.

In an old website that I no longer maintain,, I collected some comments by nurses. Nearly all requested anonymity. Not surprising considering recent headlines. They expressed views like these

Getting some experience before training – by NurseF (an unqualified bank nurse)

On the front line, I get to see all the best bits and the worst bits of nursing. I have helped a lot of people, sometimes by just being there to listen. But I have been punched and bitten and as a result I have had to have sick leave. As a member of a Control and Restraint Team, I have come in contact with a lot of aggression but I don’t have time off to recover because bank nurses receive no sick pay. I have been told I am not insured for injury.

I believe my experience will be beneficial in my training, I start it with good practical experience. My view of student and newly qualified nurses is mixed: a lot of them have no idea of how to relate to a patient on the ward and one of them was physically sick while escorting a patient to seclusion. More ward based training is necessary for their sake as well as the patients.

I think there should be more ward-based training for the nurse mentors and lecturers well. I had the (unusual?) case of a lecturer coming to work on the wards with me to learn more about the current state of front line nursing and what the staff (qualified and unqualified) did on shift. (I taught him how to do nurses corners while making beds!) He was surprised that he had forgotten how hard the work was and the importance of concentrating on the quality of interaction with the patients. It is very good to see some of the lecturers taking their job seriously.

Nurse Aoife O'Reilly from BBC1 drama Casualty. Are we recruiting student nurses  best suited to the job? Photograph: BBC
Nurse Aoife O’Reilly from BBC1 drama Casualty. Are we recruiting student nurses best suited to the job? Photograph: BBC

I believe that University of York and York College know that practical experience in training is a problem. York College’s website says

…one week full-time at the University of York Clinical Simulation Unit and a four week work placement, which includes shift working, at a clinical placement.

But are the students put through anything like the stresses that Nurse F experienced? Contrast these two other comments:

Weeding out the students not emotionally suited to nursing – Janette Trainor

I started nursing in 1973. As students we were put on the worst geriatric wards where patients were doubly incontinent with Alzheimers. There were 40 patients to award.

We did total nursing care of patients who were often difficult and aggressive. I often got covered in excrement and suffered many bruises. But it was instilled in us that we treated our patients as our own grandparents. In life and death we were totally respectful and had a very strict code of conduct…


Should the nursing profession be attracting these people? – another ex-student nurse:

Six Reasons why Project 2000 is failing patients and students: Reason 1. Students rarely want to commit themselves to shift work (an essential part of nursing) because they see themselves as students in the conventional sense; they want the six-week holidays and the 9-5 lifestyle. Shift work is so important and many placements were unhappy that many students wanted to turn up at 9am and go home at 5pm (often after or before the real work was done). Car sharing and the cost of it was often given as an excuse. Obviously nursing students wanted the bursary as well as the student lifestyle. I was honoured to receive a bursary after merely receiving a pittance of a grant for three years whilst studying for a degree, and I was one of the lucky ones. Nursing students do not know how good they’ve got it but are always complaining.

More comments are on faxfn’s nurse training section.

We should recognise the hard committed work that good nursing demands. Is the education and training of nurses “weeding out the students not emotionally suited”?

I think that’s much more serious than the old boys of St Peter’s packing the legal profession in York.

Even worse, I only just dare to say, is that a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University is a ticket the front benches in Parliament. It’s more of my prejudice that this regime crams students with a high-pressured but superficial skim of topics leading to a group-think in what Kenneth Galbraith called conventional wisdom.

Perhaps we need more government ministers like Frank Dobson, an old boy of Archbishop Holgate’s School. As Secretary of State for Health, he had the strength of mind to shake up the NHS and rethink its relationships with local authorities. It is a pity he wasn’t Secretary of State for longer to push through his reforms to the areas of the country that lagged behind.