Who should prepare young people for work?
In a recent interview with the Daily Mail (albeit not exactly Britain’s most reliable source of news), Nick Hurd, minister for Civil Society has been quoted as having expressed a number of concerns about the fitness for work of Britain’s school leaving generation:
“young people are failing to find work because they lack ‘grit'”; “social skills and discipline are every bit as essential for success as qualifications – yet they are not being taught in schools”; “the ‘crushingly low’ self-confidence of many youngsters [affects] their employment prospects”; “[employers] are saying [they] are not seeing enough of [the so-called soft skills, character skills, the ability to get on with different people, to articulate yourself clearly, grit, self-control] in kids coming out of school”
A message that has unfortunately been timed to coincide with those same young people receiving their GCSE results, surely not the best way to build confidence and resilience and help their employment prospects!
The Daily Mail article goes on to quote economic analyst at the Left-wing think-tank, Spencer Thompson: “employers … value employability and those skills are lacking among young people. They need people who turn up on time, look presentable and know how to present themselves in an interview”. And the British Chambers of Commerce who say bosses are disheartened, if not downright frustrated by school leavers.
Nick Hurd’s interview has obviously struck a chord in other quarters, with articles appearing in Huffington Post, The Times, and the London Evening Standard, and more, each bringing their own take on the subject of what the statistics show is an increasing number of young NEETS (not in education, employment or training). Ignoring the irrelevant personal attacks on Nick Hurd in some of the articles and comments they have attracted, some very valid points are made about the availability of jobs.
But what is the view of the educators? Should schools be teaching the ‘soft-skills’: such as self-confidence, grit (defined here by Wikipedia) and self-control? Actually, I can imagine teachers around the country reading this interview and shaking their heads in dismay. These skills are promoted in schools if only to achieve the purpose of actually providing children with an academic education.
Can school truly prepare children for work? I don’t think so, only work experience can really do that. I remember well my first week of work after eleven years of education. It was a shock! But I got over it. And in the year that followed I changed, I grew up a lot. But that was a long time ago.
I would suggest that some things have changed in the intervening years:
* there are fewer jobs open to young people with little or no previous work experience; this is because
* the modern work environment of short-term contracts, pressure on productivity, the demise of the manufacturing industry in favour of trades that depend on the “soft-skils”, etc, is less conducive to giving young people the opportunities to gain experience; and
* modern apprenticeships have not filled the gap of the demise of the old-style apprenticeships; also
* young people are encouraged to expect more – more money, more responsibility, more rights – before they have learned how to earn or handle these things.
One thing hasn’t changed:
* as any parent will recognise, young people in their mid-teens are still a complicated mixture of adult and child, mature in some respects, immature in others.
The good news is that research in recent years is beginning to help us understand adolescent development. International reports from National Geographic, Harvard Magazine, National Institute of Mental Health and other less academic websites tell the same story. The adolescent brain is still developing – it is neither child nor adult, some of which goes a long way to explaining what is seen as typical teenage behaviour and accounts for the dichotomy of how the teenager can seem sensible one minute and act completely immature or out of character the next. While frustrating parents (and employers) this apparent delay in brain development seems to play an essential role in providing teenagers with an adaptability as they find their own path into what is for them still an unknown adulthood. In fact the research suggests that the brain is still ‘adolescent’ to varying degrees until the mid or even late 20’s. See also articles here and here.
None of this is an argument for increasing the school leaving age, a concept popular with politicians, rather the opposite. Teenagers don’t need another year or two of the same cloistered environment they have been in for the last 11+ years.
To help the teenage brain develop and strengthen the neural pathways, the frontal cortex, etc, to increase their skills of assessment of risk and what might be summed up in what we call common sense, they need new experiences; experiences akin to work in the real world; they need an employment system (not just employers) who can provide young employees with appropriate boundaries (such as time-keeping) and space to develop and grow in skills and experience; they need the opportunity to experience working with others of different generations and experience (unlike school where children are generally kept with others close in age to themselves), observing and learning from adulthood ‘on the job’.
But for now, the problem is that employers, and Nick Hurd, are asking of teenagers something their brains are just not wired to provide. Teaching in schools will not overcome biological development. Just as we can see that it’s silly to expect a week old baby to be walking and running like a six year old, as a society we need to understand that an invisible development is still going on for the teenager.
That’s not an excuse for bad behaviour. It’s not a reason to allow teenagers and even young adults to cause mayhem. It’s recognising that as a society, as employers, as government, we all have a role to play in enabling and supporting young people, teenagers and young adults to complete their natural development.
Young people don’t need to be told they are lacking essential skills, self confidence, the ability to get on with different people, etc. They need to be told that they are moving through the next phase of their development and learning of life skills. They need the opportunity to move out of the cloistered environment of school and into work (or further education). Perhaps further research show the effects on brain development of young people who don’t get the opportunity these opportunities: will their brains continue to mature or will they remain ‘forever adolescent’?
Although the National Citizen Service volunteering programme (mentioned in the same article in the Daily Mail), providing young people with “two weeks of team-building skills while living away from home … then return to run a charity venture of their choice in a local area” seems good, what is really needed is for the government and employers to work together to create real jobs, earning real money, in real work environments, and not pass the buck to schools and teenagers to deal with something that is actually outside their scope to change.