Children are our future. I say that in full knowledge that I am in danger of peddling truisms and coming over all Whitney Houston (or George Benson, depending on your era). We know we need to invest in young people, nurture them and nourish them intellectually. After all, they are our legacy and will provide our pensions.
But are we doing it right?
There is plenty of evidence that education leads to better job prospects and higher salaries. More educated people live longer, lead healthier lives than those with less education and their children are more likely to thrive.
Even thinking about longer-term academic prospects can bring health benefits. A study by the University of St Andrews shows how young people from poor backgrounds who are aiming for university make healthier food and lifestyle choices.
The study’s lead researcher says: “Even if your current situation isn’t perhaps the rosiest, if you have this long-term plan, something to work towards, it’s going to benefit you in a wide range of ways in terms of your health behaviours.”
Yes, it’s called hope, and it’s something we give our young people precious little of.
Everywhere one turns there are reports that despite school, despite university, despite all the effort and countless exams, young people aren’t prepared for the workplace; they’re supposedly unprepared for jobs we have now and even more unprepared for the jobs that don’t exist yet (who isn’t?).
Something is going wrong somewhere. There is a major disconnect between education and the outside world.
The CBI says it wants “work-ready” young people with a complete portfolio of soft and hard skills, ready to slot into business and industry – a demand that recently drew the wrath of Tim Oates, director of research at exam group Cambridge Assessment, at a joint seminar of the Business, Innovation and Skills and Education select committees in Westminster.
Is that really what education is for? Is it only to produce a future workforce? What about the joy of learning? Or learning for learning’s sake? Or learning to make oneself a better person?
Organisations such as the CBI should be supporting schools, not submitting an order form. They should be encouraging their members to join governing bodies and to take more young people on structured work experience schemes.
How on earth does a young person learn about the behaviour and skills required in the workplace without the experience of being in one? Why should anyone be able to make demands of education without playing a part in it?
One of the problems we face today is that everything in education is tackled in isolation, seemingly without any realisation that every intervention will have a knock-on effect. Need to demonstrate progress? That means more pupil data, which means more testing. But that in turn means more stress and mental health issues for children. So let’s teach them a bit of resilience to help them deal with it.
At some point we have to stop and take stock. Is this the kind of education we want? And it’s not a decision for business but for society.
Do we want a narrow, instrumentalist education or a rounded one that allows young people to develop as human beings, as well as acquiring vital knowledge and skills? It’s a choice between work-ready and life-ready, and we have a duty to make that choice, for their future and for our own.