My careers advice? Enjoy your childhood

24th January 2014 at 00:00
Pushing young people down a particular path at an early age can cut them off from developing a love of learning for its own sake

Members of the UK's largest parenting website Netmums feel that childhood in today's world is over by the age of 12, the site revealed last year.

Particular prominence was given to the sexualisation of young people and the pace of modern life. Netmums' co-founder Siobhan Freegard said: "There needs to be a radical rethink in society to revalue childhood and protect it as a precious time - not time to put pressure on children to grow up far too fast."

I agree that we in the developed world push our children to grow up far too quickly, and I also agree that a radical rethink is needed. But I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of the erosion of childhood: our increasingly obsessive tendency to push children down career paths at earlier and earlier ages. This is a problem both in schools and in wider society. We put enormous pressure on impressionable young minds to pigeonhole themselves into a particular vocation long before it is really necessary.

This problem is not a new one, and its roots lie in the birth of many education systems. The UK's Elementary Education Act 1870 (commonly known as the Forster Act) established the beginnings of our state education system, and was largely motivated by concerns about employability and skills. It was felt that the British population was not equipped with the skills needed for the modern economy, and also that the British Army would perform better if it were stocked with young people who had experienced a "systematic popular education", as William Gladstone, then prime minister, termed it.

This history has parallels internationally, including with Germany, the US and the wider English-speaking world. The focus is on creating workers for capitalism. Hence we push children as young as 14 (a tendency that is most pronounced in Germany) down either a broadly academic or broadly vocational route.

It is extraordinary to expect a young person at the height of adolescence to have the capacity to give "knowing consent" to such a decision. Yet in forcing the issue, we still seem somehow surprised that teenagers tend to follow in the footsteps of their parents, with the children of the upper and middle classes opting for academia, and the children of the working classes taking the vocational path.

Feeling the pressure

We have swung too far in the direction of educational instrumentalism and need to ease up a bit. As someone who teaches teenagers and delivers a substantial amount of careers education, I see first-hand the strain we are placing our children under. Most of the young people I teach feel enormous pressure and believe that the subject choices they make now are going to determine the rest of their lives. Adults in government, industry and education who are applying this pressure have clearly forgotten what it is like to be 14 years old.

Teenagers are supposed to be on a journey of discovery. It should be a transitional phase in which they move towards adulthood, growing through the social trauma, rebellion and experimentation of the experience to become comfortable in their own skin. School should also be a place for them to learn about the wider world at the same time. We are increasingly squeezing out any space for these processes to take place.

This is not to say that careers education isn't important - far from it. It is vital that young people be exposed to the world of work, to find out what is out there, as many of the opportunities are far beyond what they can imagine. Of course, it is also important to make clear that certain roles do require an early subject focus - the medical profession, for example. But whether a child has decided to become a doctor or not, we need to refocus our energies towards valuing the principle of "education for its own sake".

We have drifted too far away from this principle as a society and also as teachers. I would go as far as to say that some have lost faith in the content of the subjects they teach to inspire students, preferring instead to dangle the carrot of careers and good jobs to get classes to do some work. This is a limited and seriously depressing vision of what education can be. We do not study great literature to allow us to develop the skill of textual analysis for use in an administrative job in the civil service. Studying literature will develop skills that would prove valuable in such a role, but that should never be the defining purpose of doing so.

This is not a cry for some glorious past era of education, it is a call for something different. The education profession needs to get young people to fall in love with learning, rather than simply viewing school as a phase of skills acquisition that leads to a job. Fostering a passion for learning, and the values of hard work and delayed gratification, and underpinning these with a high-quality, challenging curriculum for all will enable students to find their way to a job that is right for them simply by following their passions. The best teachers do this already, but too often they are swimming against the current, and this needs to change.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England.

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