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Good education for all young people?

In this week’s blog, Gill Millar looks at the prospective changes to the education system and explores what the role of youth workers could look like as part of a new (old) approach.

As politicians and the media ramp up the debate about expanding grammar schools – which will apparently increase parental choice – is it time to reframe the discussion and actually consider what young people want from education?

The intention of the comprehensive approach to secondary education is/was to enable young people to be able to access good quality education regardless of both their background and their academic achievement at the age of 11. It has had some success in this, with young people who would previously have been condemned to second-rate ‘secondary modern’ schools able to progress in secondary education at a rate that suited their development and increase their chances of achieving good GCSEs and A levels in comprehensive schools with impressive facilities. Those who had previously succeeded in grammar schools continued to succeed in comprehensives which still recruited really good teachers committed to helping young people achieve the best they can.

However, our education system still feels alien to young people from more deprived backgrounds, those who don’t get much parental or community support for their learning out of school and those who struggle with basic study skills, literacy and numeracy. The transition from small local primary schools to huge secondary establishments, often a long way from home, can be really daunting for a lot of young people who miss the personal support and networks they had in their local primary school. The sheer scale of many comprehensives and academies make it hard to keep in touch with all the students, and creates opportunities for bullying and isolation which are easily missed by staff who need to be adept at crowd control. Young people can easily get lost in the system, their difficulties going undiagnosed until they either get into trouble in school or fail to meet the standards for tests and exams. These are the young people who are most likely to end up unemployed or in jobs with low wages and no security – surely they should be the focus of any proposed education reforms?

Back in 2004, the Tomlinson Report into 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform provided an impressive analysis of the challenges of providing appropriate curriculum and qualifications for young people in England, noting the changes in the overall economy, the growth of new sectors and decline of others and the need for young people to be adaptable and quick to pick up new skills. Tomlinson’s proposals to reform the qualifications system, creating Diplomas which could be tailored to the aspirations of young people and removing the hierarchy of qualifications with A Levels seen as the cream and anything else as sub-standard, and to ensure that all young people developed confidence and skills in key skills such as communication and problem solving by developing their own project and engaging in communities could have really shifted England’s out of date approach to secondary education. By providing opportunities for young people to make informed choices at 14 and 16 and including educational opportunities outside of school, it had the potential to make education a much more positive experience for the significant numbers of young people who experience school as an imposition which ends in labelling them as failures.

In the end though, Tomlinson proved too big a step for politicians and some within the education establishment and it was shelved in favour of more piecemeal approaches which have done little to shift England’s dismal ranking in international tables for young people’s achievements. It is extremely unlikely that new grammar schools will do anything to address the underlying problems for young people either.

So youth workers will continue to meet and work with young people whose experience of education is almost wholly negative, who start their adult life with a massive deficit in terms of confidence, key skills and qualifications. We’ll keep trying to work with them, with ever-shrinking resources (where will funding come from once European Social Fund ends?), while successive governments continue to spend vast sums tinkering with the governance of schools but do nothing to address the content and nature of young people’s experience of education.

Maybe someone (DfE? Ofsted?) should commission a really good piece of research into young people’s experience of education – what they value, what puts them off, what they think would help them achieve their potential and gain the skills they need in a changing world – and then, even better, use this to inform education policy decisions so that we can begin to build a system where young people can participate willingly and learn in all the creative ways they will need when they become adults? The results might be surprising – and helpful!

Gill Millar

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