I’ve had a keen interest in young people and their lot ever since I was young enough to fall into that category! When I was 14, I was trained by the charity Brook, to become a sexual health peer educator. It certainly was a huge learning curve and I went on to deliver workshops around all aspects of sexual health in schools, youth groups and homeless hostels. I am dismayed that the provision on sex education or SRE (sex and relationship education) is still a controversial subject almost 20 years later, but this isn’t a post about SRE.
Last night, I happened to catch a bit of BBC Question Time when the panellists were discussing education, young people and unemployment. Mary Bousted, Leader of the ALT union raised the point that the National Curriculum under Michael Gove was becoming more academic and less skills-based. There seemed to be some consensus around having a more skills-based curriculum. David Frum said that to deal with employability we needed to take advantage of being part of Europe and learn languages so we can work in other European countries more easily. While all of these are valid points and not something I disagree with, they are not a panacea. A lot of people question whether educating young people should be the sole responsibility of the state, and indeed it shouldn’t be (and isn’t), but given that education is something the state provides, I think it should take a lead role.
The fundamental problem with education today is that it is out of date and does not support the world as it is today. Therefore, despite there being continuous reforms none of them really deal with the bigger picture. The last government introduced the aim of 50% of people under 30 having ‘an experience’ of higher education and started the academies model to help devolve power to individual schools. This government has introduced free schools and are bringing about (another) change in the national curriculum. However, all of these are small tweaks and we still have lots of young people ill-equipped to deal with the world out there, regardless of the qualifications they have or have not achieved.
Currently, many people talk about having different pathways in education- one being more academic and following the current school to university progression model and the other more practical around learning a trade and using the apprenticeships style model. But sticking to this way of thinking misses the point. We have for too long placed higher regard to the academic model that any alternative seems like the poor relation and therefore people following it must somehow be inferior. Going down this path is not the answer. It also doesn’t deal with the other issues amongst which one is why people get turned off education and learning.
As babies and toddlers, we are curious and fascinated by anything new- we have this in-built thirst for knowledge. Then we get to school and even the things we found interesting somehow end up being boring. We sit in rows, have scheduled breaks all regulated by bells, whistles or beeps. I never really lost my thirst for knowledge but I quenched it in spite of the obstacles of my schooling often via the public library. Neuroscience shows us how agile the brain is and how capable it can be, but we seem to deliberately place limits on its potential. We seem to teach through an auditory channel even though we know that people learn very differently. Then we blame young people for being disengaged.
I would like to see a curriculum that allows children and young people develop life skills, such as communication, empathy, team work, having an enquiring mind, not just to learn facts to put on an exam paper every few years. Something that incorporates different learning styles and sets people up to succeed in the 21st century, so that young people feel they can make choices rather than being told what their capabilities are. The past few months I have helped many young people who are feeling extreme pressure as they apply to university (or not!), feeling like their lot in life is already pre-determined. The fact that we have a recession at the moment just heightens the problem.
It is no surprise that there is a burgeoning sector committed to helping young people achieve- from large-scale organisations like The Princes Trusts to many SMEs and one-(wo)man bands. This sector seems to be growing, addressing the gap that currently exists within schools and society as a whole when it comes to educating our young people. However, not all young people benefit as services are often localised, working with a group of students rather than the whole school or come in to deal with the aftermath when students have dropped out of the education system. I wish I could get all these people working with young people together and get them to create the new curriculum so that their expertise was available to all and not just the few. Until the government of the day are obliged by the people to take a courageous step, we will have to continue to muddle through in the haphazard fashion that we have.