Hands on Vocational Training

(I am very grateful to Charles Beamish for sending me this fascinating letter. Charles attended a Secondary Technical School (STS) (see biography on this site). Charles provides a great insight into the structure and curriculum of STSs. Little has been written about Secondary Technical Schools so this valuable contribution adds greatly to this site and to or knowledge. The letter highlights the focus on the teaching of practical and manual skills in the Secondary Technical Sschool curriculum something that sadly has vanished today with its increasing emphasis on the academic subjects. Charles also identifies current problems with the lack of qualified teachers and continuing cuts to school and college budgets).

Mr Evans,


Continuing to be interested in all things technical, even though it is some while since I retired, I was very interested in your website. This is as well as reading at the views of vocational teachers venting their frustrations on the TES site. So I wondered if I could be indulged by recounting my own experience and views on the subject.
I failed my 11+ and so attended a Technical Secondary School 1952-56. A rare beast then and now totally extinct. We were taught the basic subjects of course, with maths based on Ordinary National Certificate, Geometry O Level as was English, and technical drawing. And we had a choice of woodwork or metalwork. As a Meccano enthusiast I chose metalwork. For four years I was taught by a fully qualified fitter and turner; often with a roll-up cigarette in his mouth whilst operating the lathe. No safety glasses, just overalls or dad’s cut down dungarees for the boys. Before I arrived he and his boys had constructed a fully working steam train with wagons and track, which ran around the school carrying boys as passengers. The engine and tender was proudly displayed in the main corridor.
There I was taught the use of numerous hand tools besides forging, brazing, soldering, grinding, turning both metal and wood on the lathes, case hardening, tempering, the use of micrometers and Vernier gauges, screw cutting and the different types of screw threads, drilling and riveting. I made a junior hacksaw, a tin tray, a cold chisel, a soldering iron, a screwdriver, a flower pot stand made from strip steel, a bullnose plane from a block of mild steel, a brass toasting fork (which I still have), a gate latch, a poker, a pin vice, and a tri-square. All paid for with a nominal sum to cover the cost of materials. Sixpence for the flowerpot stand as I remember. Those with the ability made a drill brace – all save the cast frame – as made by Stanley the tool maker. At fifteen I went to the local technical college for a year before joining the RAF to become a radar fitter, so learned electronics.
It still rankles to some extent even now that only the grammar school students were allowed to take O Levels at that time, so that even having been top of the class in the top stream for four years I left with no qualifications whatsoever. Night school rectified that, academically if not in the hands-on skills.
However I have continued to use those skills learned at school and am grateful for the opportunity to have learned so much of what is denied to today’s students. As one of a certain generation it dismays me that a younger generation cannot carry out what to us oldies are simple DIY tasks. My own children attended a school which demolished its workshops and then spent several thousands of pounds on new sports facilities. My grandchildren enjoyed learning in my workshop, just as I learned in my grandfather’s workshop – he was a carpenter. Children are fascinated by tools and are eager to learn. Their intent faces whilst sawing or hammering were a joy. Now they are home-schooled and taught by ex-teachers and experts disillusioned by state education. Yet still bound by state examinations, which regrettably are all theory.
My point therefore in writing this is to emphasise what I believe is the vital importance of actual hands-on experience in working with tools and materials, and the satisfaction of producing something useful. Also experiencing the touch and smell of woods and metals, the oils and paints. Running one’s fingers along a well-planed length of wood is almost sensuous. And smelling the various scents from different woods is perfume to a woodworker. In the same way that the smell of cutting oil still recalls for me so many pleasant memories. And the smell of flux when soldering, the acrid smells of cut Paxolin or Ebonite or a burnt out resistor in a circuit. They can however forego the experience of the tingle of a finger touching a 400v terminal on a large capacitor and the subsequent hole burned in the skin… My radar days.
It is essential in my view that students get to feel tools and materials they are using or learning about. And I do mean feel in the sense of touch. To take an example: screw cutting with a die. Use a square to ensure the piece of work is vertical; use a file to lightly create a bevel around the edge where the die is to start cutting; keep the die horizontal; turn gently but firmly with a slight initial pressure; turn back at intervals to release waste material; apply a drop of oil to aid cutting. All this requires touch, the feel of too much or too little torque. As does using a vertical drill require a certain feel to judge and observe the drill as it cuts, so that it doesn’t burn or indeed snap. None of this can possibly be learned from books.
You are more qualified than me, so please excuse me if I’m teaching granny to suck eggs, but the above example is meant as an illustration of what I mean.
Your contributors, and those to TES, are naturally concerned with qualifications and careers. Coming from my angle I see these skills as life-enhancing in themselves. However I despair at the ignorance of politicians in cutting costs where investment should be made, and constantly interfering in things they know absolutely nothing about, since there is not one scientist or engineer amongst the whole bunch of them.
Thank you for reading thus far.
Charles Beamish

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