Schools can win a battle for hearts and minds

27th November 2015 at 00:00

Today’s school pupils could be forgiven for viewing the remainder of the 21st century as an overwhelming prospect.

There are the actual and threatened atrocities of the likes of Islamic State, a terrorist group with a thirst to annihilate. There are climate change and population growth, a potentially cataclysmic pincer movement on the Earth’s resources. There are predictions that artificial intelligence will eliminate countless jobs, with the technology controlled by a tiny ruling elite.

It would be all too easy for young people to throw their hands up in despair. As Graham Leicester, director of the International Futures Forum, told Scotland’s education directors last week: “They are growing up in a story of forthcoming apocalypse, and it’s difficult to escape at the moment.”

So where does this leave education? What is clear is that the old, utilitarian approach – work hard, get good qualifications and secure a job for life – no longer cuts the mustard. Many young people already languish outside education, employment or training (for more on the Neet group, see pages 6-7) and there are more graduates than graduate-level jobs.

But the prospects may be worse for today’s babies, Leicester stresses: by the time they are 45 they will be barristers or baristas, with little in between; today’s array of mid-range jobs is going to be “hollowed out”, largely as a result of technology supplanting human workers.

“It’s about engaging young people in a dream,” says Leicester in articulating how education needs to offer something more. Or put another way: “Trying to find a meaningful life in the cracks of a failing economy and a cultural crisis.”

Surprisingly, Leicester then turns to terror group IS to explain what he means. Echoing the views of Paris-based anthropologist Scott Atran in a recent newspaper article, he points out that IS recruits young people in great numbers by inspiring them. It offers an idea dressed up as “sacred values, something that matters, something that makes them dream”. No matter how warped, this message has been known to recruit young people who were previously stumbling aimlessly through life.

Which leads to Leicester’s rallying call: “Well, we’ve got sacred values as well – we just don’t talk about them, we don’t put them up front, or we’re not very good at expressing them or allowing them to be expressed.”

Educators must do more than send students into the world with a clutch of qualifications – they’re in a battle for hearts and minds.

But it’s not as though many teachers are not already winning this war – and making a dramatic difference to many young lives while they’re at it. Scotland has experienced big falls in violent crime and referrals to the Children’s Reporter, and schools should take much of the credit (see page 10).

They are far less likely these days to exclude troublesome pupils, for example. In the past, these young people would have been shunted from pillar to post, often becoming lost in the gaps between. Now, schools take responsibility for most such teenagers. That is crucial, according to the Violence Reduction Unit’s Karyn McCluskey, because many troubled young souls say the same thing: the only person who cares about them is someone at school.

These are daunting times, but teachers will do more than most to prepare young people for the challenges ahead.

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