Educating People for Society, Not Just the Workforce

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Remember that time you went to work and you spent all day listening to someone talk at you, while sat in a compulsively neat row of tables and chairs? No? What about that time you had to write down everything you knew about something that you were told eighteen months ago, without being able to use any notes or predict what exactly you would need to know? That doesn’t happen in the real world either?

Theoretically, school provides students with the skills and experiences needed to survive and thrive in adulthood – otherwise why would we subject people to it? Except it doesn’t. The schooling system doesn’t actually prepare people for real life – it’s there to teach useful academic knowledge in an overly complex way, and then rank the students with a number to indicate their value as an employee.

Exams are detrimental to education. They cause students months of stressful revision in order to condense two or more years worth of teaching into a handy two hour snippet of what a child can splurge onto a page. Mock exams and practice essays back hardly help you t0 become a better writer; you don’t read the in-depth comments, you just look at the number you get given. If it’s high enough, you pat yourself on the back and keep going how you were; if it’s too low you learn the mark scheme slightly better to score more points from a pointless, academic nuance that’s irrelevant to how well you know your topic.

The numbers exist purely for employers and universities to score you. The standardised (or roughly standardised) curriculum allows them to rank you against your peers and provides a quick shortcut: universities and employers can look at those numbers and decide whether or not you are good enough. What happens if we take away the numbers? Children would be less stressed, they’d gain two or three months of extra teaching, the curriculum could be more varied and more difficult subjects could be taught at a more leisurely pace. The main risk seems to be demotivation, but if teachers were no longer given strict quotas for pass/fail percentages, then they could come up with ways to tailor their feedback and teaching to each student.

Employers and universities would have to do a little bit more work, true. They might have to read your personal statement in more detail, perhaps ask for an example of your work, or maybe even create entrance exams to reflect the skills needed at the institution, but that’s not a good enough reason to subject children to being mere data entries on the great spreadsheet that is our education system.

As the BBC recently reported, students are emerging from the spreadsheet woefully under-prepared for university, and (I hypothesise from my own experience) the big wide world that they are thrust into the instant a piece of paper indicates that they are ready. That’s not really a surprise though, is it? Very few people emerge from the schooling system having learnt how to adult. Adulting is something that we are supposed to learn from our parents, or our mistakes. They have a part to play, but our education system needs to do more to tackle our futures than sit us in a room and watch a teacher awkwardly tell a group of teenagers that sex is dangerous and drugs are bad.

PSHE is important, don’t get me wrong, it’s just inadequate and mal-managed. It touches on useful information, but leaves you laughably unprepared. Proper life skills such as how to balance a budget, register for a doctor, rent a house and register to vote are things that remain largely absent from education, but are necessary in adult life.

One of the main problems faced by life skills initiatives is that it only takes one disruptive pupil to reduce the benefit received by the other members of the group. Therefore, the education system needs to devise a way of ensuring maximal participation, while at the same time allowing those pupils who have no interest in attending (and therefore gain no benefits from being present) to not go. A shocking and revolutionary suggestion, I know, but a small choice can make a massive difference, even if education largely precludes significant choice until you are old enough to get married.

Another revolutionary idea: maybe not everything in school needs to be delivered by a teacher? I know, you’ve always wanted that guy who taught you ICT to teach you about drugs, but he doesn’t look like he wants to be here and, frankly, he stopped saying anything useful about 4 minutes into the first lesson. Sessions delivered by volunteers passionate about the topic, rather than by teachers forced to deliver something as dictated by the curriculum, would be conducive to students actually gleaning real-life hints and tips and getting a better understanding of key skills and issues.

This could also be supported by events and practical sessions which would provide some form of end goal and relate the topic to real life. The possibilities are endless and they would be of real benefit to young people, ensuring that they leave the education system with at least a little bit of preparation for the real world.

Ultimately, the problem faced by many is that they come out of education with academic knowledge and a lovely data entry on the spreadsheet at the Department for Education, but without the practical skills needed to thrive in the real world. It is time that we started educating young people to be members of a society, rather than just educating them to be a part of a workforce. If we were to treat them as individuals and give them vital skills that can be used for their whole lives, then we might see a real improvement in the lives and mental health of young people in our society.

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