I recently found myself giving a presentation to a youth group. Knowing some of them had recently been through the 2021 GCSE assessment process, I told them not to worry if they didn’t get the grades they wanted. I told them that education is a lifelong process and that I had recently sat GCSE maths as a forty-something dad of two.
As the words came out of my mouth, I realised I was probably going to get myself in all sorts of trouble with their mums and dads. The youngsters would no doubt have been told to work very hard for their GCSEs. Having me suggest it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they missed their predicted marks by a grade or three might have been seen as unhelpful (you can read about my recent GCSE experiences here).
In all seriousness, it’s a message I wish I had been given when I was at school. I wish I had been told that education was a lifelong process, that I didn’t need to make hard career choices well before the age of 16.
Some of this pressure came from school. This sounds very Pink Floydian, but there was a system and you were expected to abide by its rules. You were not to deviate. You were to get qualifications and careers advisers would nudge you along the way.
The other source of pressure was from within the family home. I felt under immense pressure to have a career plan worked out. My family was, I think, somewhat concerned I’d drift without a steadfast career plan in place by the age of 16. If I messed up my GCSEs I thought I would become a pariah, the kind of person people crossed the street to avoid.
The irony is that’s exactly what I did. I ended up doing GCSEs twice and just scraped through A-Levels.
I don’t ever recall being told that my work life wouldn’t be linear. I don’t ever recall being told that I might choose to travel for a bit, that it would be okay to change careers in my thirties if I wished (…did that) or that the arrival of children might result in me taking different employment choices (…the arrival of children changed things completely for me).
There was absolutely no suggestion that I should be creative or prepare for a world that was ever changing. It’s probably one of the biggest failings of the education system.
People need to learn new skills as they progress through life. They need to study for new qualifications long after leaving school and yet this is one aspect of the education system that I don’t think has changed. Youngsters are still being educated in the expectation they’ll go into a line of work and stay in it until they are handed an engraved carriage clock at retirement.
If anything, the pressure has increased. If you listen to teenagers talking today, some are expected to take GCSEs in Year 10, a year earlier than I did at school. These choices have to be made earlier and puts pressure on them at a younger age.
This is quite personal to me. I have a vague plan that I might return to college and retrain for a career where GCSE maths is an entry requirement. It’s unusual for someone of my age to sit a GCSE, but should it be? Why aren’t we encouraged to study and take new qualifications in later life, even basic ones? Why should this be seen as a pursuit solely for the young?
We’re giving our children a very unhealthy message. The idea they must know what they want to do while teenagers is both unrealistic and puts them under huge and unfair stress.
Yes, youngsters should be encouraged to do their best at school and to leave with good grades. They should also be encouraged to be creative, to be flexible and to try new things. They should be encouraged to see formal education as a lifelong process and something they should dip in and out of as they need, not something that ends in your teens or early twenties. Such a view of the world is limiting, unhelpful and damaging.