I was completely shocked when I returned to the UK after 16 years travelling around the world. I had been in countries like Papua New Guinea, Australia and Canada where I had been teaching secondary school, training teachers, and having my own child.
What shocked me was the way many, and especially the media and older people, talked about our young people. Even talking with relatives there seemed to be a fear of young people and especially when they were in groups.
This had not been my experience in other countries. So what was different here? Definitely the media and the way they select news. You must have realised how a theme starts to build and they keep focussing on that until it seems more widespread and worrying. Young people seemed to fit that bill.
Secondly, we have become a hugely risk adverse society and this is often seen in parenting. Children get driven to school for fear of the dangers if they walked. Children don’t go out and just play in their street or nearby park for fear of abduction.
Thirdly, since the Thatcher years there has definitely been a narrative around young people being a problem at school. Many myths have emerged which reinforce this attitude to young people. Here are a few:
– Young people don’t want to learn. Wrong!
– They don’t care about the environment or other global issues. Wrong – as the 7 NUS surveys continue to demonstrate!
– They only want to play games on their phones or tablets! Wrong – as the forest school movement is showing
– They don’t have the values and attitudes for being caring and concerned citizens. Wrong – as surveys show they are in fact very worried.
There are more but these are the main ones.
So if our young people are ‘acting up’ by: truanting school; getting into alcohol, drugs or sex; getting pregnant very young; being depressed; attacking teachers; not being interested in school – is this their fault or ours? We have an education system and societal attitude that is oppressive to children and our record of very low child wellbeing is the testament to that.
So why is this important? I am about to go to my 3rd policy event this month. The first was about the Sustainable Development Goals in London. The second was the UNESCO global week long conference in Canada and the third is in Manchester looking at the policies that exist in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. At each of these I am making the same point – if we continue to see our young people as deficit in skills, values, attitudes – nothing will change. We have to return to viewing them as capable, interested, having opinions (maybe not fully formed), concerns, and values that should be our starting point. We have to stop thinking of them as empty vessels to be moulded.
This means thinking critically about the conservative, neo-liberal approach to education as training young people up for society – as that society is not looking at its best right now. We need an education system that prepares young people to be caring, creative, agents of change and capable. Oh yes – and then they might change the broken systems we are currently struggling with – environmentally, socially and economically.
Adapting, adding on or tweaking the current education system will not change a thing. In fact if we really stopped being busy and got on with this transformation rather than adaptation of the current system, collectively we might just affect that change. It will affect the policies we should fight for and get behind.
That is the task ahead of us. Hope you agree and will join SEEd to be part of that change – we need you, as our young people need us.
SEEd Executive Chair