Pooling ideas to get ahead

29th July 2016 at 00:00
You might expect a list of must-have experiences designed by secondary students to be full of alcohol and adventure, but, as Helen Amass finds, young people today are actually more concerned with how well their education prepares them for adulthood

Caroline Spalding, head of English at Tupton Hall School in Chesterfield, is reading the TES list of 100 things you should experience in secondary school, which has been put together by 11- to 16-year-olds. And she is a little taken aback.

“When I was at school, the list would have contained a lot more snogging and drinking,” she muses. “I don’t think I gave a second thought to taxes or how to move house during secondary school.”

Times, it seems, have changed. When we asked a cross-section of 11-16 schools across the UK – including mainstream, independent and alternative provision institutions – to get their students to come up with a list of 100 must-have school experiences, excluding anything academic or subject specific, the expectation among many was that their choices would reflect a mix of misbehaviour, misadventure and misdirected desire.

Yet, while the list does include experiences that would fall into these categories, the clearest trend that emerged was quite different: well over a third of the suggestions are about gaining crucial life skills. “Learn how to save money” was one of the most common choices, along with “Learn what to do if you are in debt”, “Learn about taxes” and “Be told how to buy a house”.

Does this suggest that students feel anxious about how well-prepared they are for life beyond the school gates? Is the list a cry for help from the student body, revealing that they want more school time dedicated to skills that will help them to survive the cut and thrust of being an adult and the practicalities that this involves?

Many teachers seem to think so. And educational psychologists and mental health experts agree. But all warn that simply teaching more “life skills” may not be the answer. Instead, they argue, we need to transform the mindset of everyone in education so that lessons for life are seen not as an addition to the timetable – to be squeezed between “important” academic pursuits – but as an integral part of what schools do.

‘Children will be children’

“Get a detention”, “Have a mini heartbreak over ‘the one’ ”, “Make a best friend for life” – not every item on the list runs contrary to what you would expect 11- to 16-year-olds to value about the school experience. And there are still plenty of choices that will provoke a nostalgic smile from those whose student years are far behind them: “Have an embarrassing school photograph” and “Fall off a chair because you were rocking back on it”, for example. And the ultimate humiliation: “Call a teacher mum or dad”.

Many of these experiences fit neatly into the typical teenage profile of rebellion and impetuousness, of individuals striving for independence within a world they see as monochrome. Far from being concerned by this, assistant headteacher John Stanier, from Great Torrington School in Devon, is relieved.

“It is good to see that pupils, as they were in my day, are equally keen to subvert the rules – and get away with it. I often worry, with increased academisation and schools being made to feel like offices, that these essential rites of passage may have been lost. But, fortunately, children will still be children.”

Julian Dutnall, headteacher of the Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls in Romford, is likewise pleased with the amount of mild peril that shows up on the list.

“I am delighted that students recognise the importance of developing character traits that will certainly set them up well for later life,” he says. “They can see that you learn as much from your perceived mistakes as your successes, so coping with embarrassment, learning to say sorry and taking risks are clear themes that emerge.”

Dawn Thorley, a former teacher who retrained to become an educational psychologist, explains that acts of rebellion are an essential part of teenagers’ personal development. Adolescence is a time when we move away from identifying with our immediate family unit, and when our peers become much more important. So we try out different behaviours in order to fit in socially.

“What I found interesting was the number of experiences the students named that were either acts of rebellion or moments of embarrassment, both of which are really important in the formation of our identity as we move through the teenage years and work out who we are,” Thorley, who now works for Dorset County Council, says. “Teenagers need experiences that allow them to explore and develop their identity as they move away from their childhood self. This involves testing boundaries and risk-taking, and exploring different roles and opportunities, so that they can develop a strong sense of self.”

‘Manageable risks’

Natasha Devon, the former government mental health champion for schools, is an advocate for teens being helped to take these risks – she goes so far as to suggest that certain items on the list could act as a guide for how to do so in a controlled way.

“I was struck by the amount of manageable jeopardy in the suggestions,” Devon says. “When we say it’s important for young people to experience a little adversity, or that a certain amount of stress is good for them, we need to defer to this list for examples.”

However, although traditional rites of passage, such as “Go to the end-of-year prom”, and examples of manageable risk, like “Put your hand up in class…and get something right”, are present on the list, the desire to be prepared to face the complexities of adult life dominates.

“Learn how to be good at interviews”, “Learn what to do if you are in debt”, “Learn how to look after yourself” and “Gain the ability to live on your own”: these choices suggest that secondary students are already thinking about the adult world and want to make sure that people their age acquire the skills and strategies that they will need to cope.

Although Spalding was shocked by the absence of stereotypically teenage concerns such as “snogging”, she is not surprised that anxieties about surviving in an adult world are surfacing now. “Students’ preoccupations perhaps mirror their parents’ at a time of recession,” she says.

Thorley agrees. “When we see anxiety in a young person, one hypothesis is that it has been transferred to them from an adult in their life, whether that’s a teacher or a parent,” she explains.

But she says other external factors can contribute, too: for example, living in a 24-hour culture. Today’s teenagers are exposed to constant and often relentless updates about what is going on in the world. And with negative news stories more likely to be widely reported, young people are perhaps more aware of life’s stresses than they ever have been before.

“Teenagers are still at an impressionable age,” Thorley says. “Their brain is not fully able to reason in an adult way. So they hear things and soak up the messages but often without being able to understand the whole context. I think that does make them more anxious than before.”

She says schools can adapt how they operate to better reflect those concerns. “Students need more information to be able to properly process the things they hear,” she explains. “And this is where schools can help to fill the gaps in understanding that come from half-formed messages from the media.”

Schools may argue that they do this already through class discussions when issues overlap with subject areas or are covered in PSHE. But what Thorley is advocating is a more comprehensive, coordinated strategy – with dedicated curriculum time. That’s difficult for schools, because they are held to account for their academic results, so life skills can often be more of an afterthought.

This is an issue that education systems across the world are dealing with, says Sir John Dunford, chair of Whole Education, a school partnership network that promotes a more holistic approach to learning.

“It is interesting, but not surprising, to see that secondary students place a high priority on developing interpersonal and other [life] skills while at school,” he says “Internationally, educators are recognising that schooling in the 21st century needs to be much more than it has been – [it needs to include] the development of skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making, which are at the heart of many of the things in the list. This requires schools to plan a curriculum that is based on the development of skills and personal attributes as well as knowledge.”

Working it out

The teachers of the students involved in creating the list say they are aware of this issue. And you just have to take a cursory glance at the TES Community pages, social media or education blogs to reveal a general feeling among many educators that, although schools are ticking some of the right boxes when it comes to preparing students for life beyond the classroom, there is plenty more that could be done.

But not all teachers share that view. Many argue that such lessons should be provided by parents, rather than schools. Others advise caution, particularly where life skills align with workplace skills – or “employability”. Writing in TES, Joe Bispham, English teacher and head of media at Forest Gate Community School in East London, argues: “Our job isn’t – and shouldn’t be – to create worker ants. Our job is to mould citizens, to provide access to the works of Shakespeare, philosophical ideas, music, maths and science.” (“It’s not the job of schools to churn out workers”, Comment, 22 July.)

But Stanier thinks that the list is proof that pupils feel schools should be responsible for teaching life skills and that education is not equipping them with the key information they need in the modern world, such as how to manage their finances or buy a house.

“Especially during the exam years, the whole culture of schools [in England] is that English and maths are the most important to learn, followed by science, then other English Baccalaureate subjects, then other foundation subjects and then…anything else,” he says. “Do we really ensure every child leaves school with key skills?”

Dutnall agrees that the focus on English and maths has made it difficult for schools to prioritise teaching the things that students are perhaps most keen to learn.

“Progress 8 is a welcome departure from the rigid adherence to five A*-C [GCSE] grades with English and maths,” he says. “It opens the door for us to recognise the importance of creative subjects, but it doesn’t go far enough. We need to consider how we teach and develop skills that will support students in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment.”

Dutnall adds that schools need to be careful that they are not prioritising academic performance to the exclusion of everything else, “despite the growing pressures to do so”.

Yet schools need the freedom to be able to offer more life lessons, and Devon says that this has to come from the government. She argues that there needs to be a shift at policy level to make sure the mental health of students is higher on the agenda.

“With the number of young people experiencing symptoms of anxiety spiralling, this should be as fundamental as sport and nutrition,” she says.

Free and clear choice

But just giving more time for life lessons is only half the battle – there also needs to be some general agreement about what these lessons should involve. Devon says that we should let the teenagers decide. Thorley agrees, suggesting that young people may be better placed to know what is in their own interests than we might necessarily think.

“Adults often expect young people to care greatly about their next steps in terms of what qualifications they need or what they want to do,” she says. “But young people are actually much better than they’re given credit for in terms of seeing the bigger picture, and their priorities can actually be much healthier than being entirely academically focused.”

What Thorley stresses, however, is that these lessons should not be completely separate from the main thread of education. To be truly effective, they must be not an add-on but an integral, and equal, part of the curriculum.

“Students’ more basic needs are not being met often because these needs are seen as ‘other’ to academic work,” she says. “And with so much pressure on teachers to deliver results, this is when the focus winds up being on the top-level, academic side of things.”

The TES list of 100 must-have experiences suggests that students already have their priorities straight, and their teachers recognise the need for change, too. So it is just the system that needs to catch up. And Spalding says it must do so quickly.

“These are formative years that shape the people our students grow into,” she says. “Teachers believe passionately that we have a duty to develop the whole individual. This list confirms that students value this aspect of school life just as much as we do.”

With thanks to the schools that took part in this feature: Bridge Academy, Bristol; Bryanston, Dorset; Great Torrington School, Devon; Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls, Romford; Frank Wise School, Banbury; Heanor Gate Science College, Nottingham; Hope School, Wigan; Michaelston Community College and Glyn Derw High School, Cardiff; Nelson Thomlinson School, Cumbria; St Patrick’s High School, County Armagh; Stanwell School, Penarth; Tupton Hall School, Chesterfield; Warblington School, Havant

Students say: ‘Schools should teach about taxes and debt’

Elliemae Riggott, Olivia Buckley and Amelia Billing are in Year 8 at Tupton Hall School in Chesterfield

We think some items on the list are relatable. However, some are ridiculous, like “Rename British Bulldog because it’s banned”.

Some are funny, but do happen in real life, like “Be hit in the face by a ball” and “The class goes silent just as you say something embarrassing”.

It is good to have some things like learning about taxes and rent on the list because it will be useful in later life. We think that the list includes these things because some will help us in later life and some will make our school life a bit more exciting and make you engaged about learning.

Sophie Heron is in Year 10 at the Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls in Romford

My overall reaction was that some of the tasks are just childish fun and others are serious topics that are mature thinking towards the future.

The high number of serious experiences that have been included on the list is not surprising because, in my opinion, teenagers do not really communicate their worries and fears for the future, so subjects like taxes are not normally discussed and can cause confusion and anxiety.

I think the list included these things because teenagers are feeling a variety of emotions during these tough years: anxiety, social pressure and immaturity. So silly “accomplishments” like throwing a pen into a bin from across the room can seem like a rite of passage.

However, more serious tasks such as learning CPR can be quite daunting for the average teen so this is probably why they were included on the list.

Louise Wood is in Year 8 at Great Torrington School in Devon

Some of these things are a bit silly, like “Get a detention”. Why on earth would you want to get a detention? Most detentions are given out for disrupting the class and stopping others from learning.

Some of them are good, like “Learn about taxes, mortgages and rent”, because what would you do without knowing how to do that?

Also a good one is “Learn what to do if you’re in debt” because if you don’t learn how to do all your taxes, then the least you could do is learn what to do and how to play it. Schools should be used for this.”

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