School For Stress
By Rosie Campbell MSc
The education crisis is so grave that, among mid-achieving teenagers, educational performance often out-pitches sex, drugs and mugging as the number one teenage anxiety. For both parents and teenagers, there is a very real desperation about making the grade and, quite simply, an unbelievable level of stress. The reason? We have evolved into a society in love with its meritocracy, whereby the only safeguard keeping your children from the scrapheap of unemployment and delinquency are those magic, five A-C grade GCSEs. Politicians speak in sombre tones about the marginalised, hard-to-reach or disadvantaged within our society; parents fear their children slipping into such a trap. And its hard to argue against this climate of anxiety because all the evidence suggests that those who fail to make the grade, the losers, are doomed to experience marginalisation.
The crisis becomes even worse when we consider low socio-economic group teenage boys, the key alarm bell sector of the population. When conducting group discussion after group discussion with 13-16 year old boys, it is evident how utterly disillusioned and disinterested they are in their schools, their school life and, by extension, their occupation for much of their waking hours. One cannot help but wonder what will happen to these battalions of young adults when they venture into the wider world. There are simply too many youngsters leaving school utterly ill-prepared for the working world they are likely to inhabit, especially young men. They see themselves only in terms of what they don't like, don't know, can't achieve. They are self-described failures within a system that never felt like an appropriate measure for them, which never worked for them and which their own parents and role models often see as remote, irrelevant and emasculating.
One outcome is that these boys leave school with a bunch of complexes and no GCSEs. Moreover, because they feel like failures, there is a much greater possibility that they will turn to crime or the black economy rather than take a risk at an apprenticeship or college course. Why take the risk on failing yet another course?
The other is the one that the Prince of Wales quite rightly highlighted: non-academic youngsters do think they have a right to achieve, a right to aspire beyond their station - because that is exactly what a meritocracy teaches. The attainable dream of celebrity, for example, can seem a perfectly reasonable alternative to 5+ GCSEs. Who can blame the 15 year old who sees only failure in the academic world for so-dreaming? Today, teenagers often express their expectations for immense future wealth and amassed material possessions at the same time as advertising their inability at school work and disrespect for formal (academic) qualifications. The over-exposure of celebrities and their worlds of success, masks the fact that there are very, very few Beckhams or Bransons out there. In other words, very, very few who have overcome poor school achievement to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. The issue is that we then encounter unemployed and unqualified young people in their 20s, who are hardened and embittered about the lack of life's prizes they have so far received.
So what is the answer?
A system based on practical, experiential learning that provides the dignity of achievable and relevant success through tangible qualifications. A system that embraces a show and mentor approach; a system based on earlier vocational education.
In fact, we have encountered so many older children and young adults who are so angry, depressed and disheartened by what has become an increasingly academic school curriculum, that the need for vocational programmes is pretty much a no brainer.
So why is the provision of such programmes not being made?
It is clearly not the non-academic youngsters, nor the tradesman parents who are putting up barriers and sounding alarm bells about the inequality and lack of status of vocational education. On the whole they couldn't care less whether you call it an A Level, a School Certificate or a Diploma in Media Studies. What they want, quite sensibly, is education which bears some useful semblance to the kind of life and work areas they might hope or expect to enter. They want good vocational courses and/or work-based learning experience which will lead to well-paid work.
It could be argued that the problem is caused by the archetypal Guardian-reading and Oxford-educated politicians of the liberal left. In a mood of inverted snobbery, they imagine that universalising qualification structures somehow de-stigmatises the vocationally-inclined. Yet it is these middle class, chattering meritocrats, who have sailed successfully through a classically academic education, who typically have the 'vocational = low status' world view.
Instead of looking at education from a marketing-led, status-conscious perspective, they could consider the real problem: the sheer lack of vocational education. Political proposals to further develop a unified, seamless system of vocational and academic qualifications do nothing to address the lack of structure, course content and educators needed to fill the vocational gaps in education. Branding post-16 education under a single banner is not the answer to democratising education.
One of the problems around the education debate is that the opinions gleaned through opinion polling, segment people as favouring either the academic or vocational direction. It pitches the massive liberal left against a conservative right schism.
The liberal left have inherited the meritocratic project and have adopted it to the point that we now have a generation of young aspirant parents who are sick with the stress of living with, and through, their child's every school moment. They have no choice unless they have a junior Arsenal player on their hands because, of course, there is no other type of success.
The conservative right are like the English abroad. They believe all one has to do is shout louder to be understood. If school discipline is sorted out and teenagers made to attend and produce, then the cream would rise and everyone else can go off and be a plumber.
How we deal with the rising tide of delusionist expectation in young people, the idolisation of material success along with a tranch of seriously angry school failures, is the super-grand issue which should over arch political policy. But this will only happen when serious debate takes place. When headline grabbing policies are shelved in favour of ones that address the real issues in our education system. When politicians, teachers, experts, parents and students feed into the thinking about the ultimate goals of education as well as who gets to sit where and take which GCSEs.
Copyright © CKL Ltd, 2005
Rosie Campbell is a co-founder and director of the qualitative research consultancy Campbell Keegan. Over the past 25 years she has conducted many research projects and spent several hundred hours interviewing school children, teachers and parents, exploring issues around education. The research has been undertaken on behalf of all the largest Government Departments including the Department of Education and Skills and companies in the private sector.