Paul McNamee: Education and the root and branch change

Being up in branches does make you have a different perspective

A few years ago I took my children climbing trees. For a time we’d head out and about and find a good oak or beech and work our way into the branches.

I’d been inspired by the great nature writer Robert Macfarlane, a tree-climbing evangelist, who said there was something curious that happens when people pass by a tree and see an adult up in the branches.

Not having thought of it since I was a child, I gave it a try, using my children as an excuse to get back among some branches.

Also, tree climbing is a very cheap way to amuse children. And to escape from the tyranny of soft-play areas. There is a great beech in the middle of Pollok Country Park in Glasgow that is calling out for you to climb. At some point it was cleaved in two, most likely by lightning, though one local legend claims it was caused by an angry witch. 

This meant it grew back to form a spread in the middle big enough to hold a family. I know this because my children, my wife and I all went up. Twice.

Last week Damian Hinds, the current Education Secretary, said he wants climbing trees to be encouraged and promoted in primary schools. It builds character, he said. It gets kids’ faces away from screens. I’d like to hear the conversations amongst risk-averse school heads when that directive was delivered.

Hinds has a good point. Just getting out and discovering stuff is a hugely positive thing to do. And being up in branches does make you have a different perspective. There are also clear benefits around problem solving and motor skills. More than that, it’s fun.


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This signals something else. Hinds wants to encourage a more holistic approach to education, that it’s more than rote learning, that there are broader, more beneficial skills that can be carried through life.

A few days ago we learned that an unnamed university had to be bailed out with £1m of public money or else it couldn’t keep the lights on. Although the loan was subsequently repaid, it illustrates the precarious nature of third-level education funding. Many are now primarily marketplaces competing for student numbers to get the fees in that will keep the ball in the air.

Just getting out and discovering stuff is a hugely positive thing to do

The Blairite intention of getting a majority of school leavers into higher education, thereby improving the skills and knowledge base and employability of Britain, is a commendable one. Almost one in three 18 to 24-year-olds now go into some form of higher education in the UK.

But if university students on graduation see a workplace that doesn’t offer a return on the investment made – and fees and living expenses are not decreasing – they are going to start looking for their money back.

There have been stories recently about a move towards two-year rather than three-year degree courses. This may not be enough to save a number of non-vocational degrees. And some colleges themselves will be looking over their shoulders, trying to justify their existence.

But it must allow for much deeper conversations about what education is for, how the workspace can be bettered and how skilled and properly paid jobs can be created for the primary school kids of today.

We should all get up a tree to discuss it.

Image: iStock