Artillery Row

It is high time to modernise our education system

We don’t need a revolution in education, just give kids more choice

From two decades of working with young people in Manchester I’ve noticed that the two main indicators that inform me a young person is likely to make poor choices are no father at home and failing at education. Leaving aside the issue of fatherlessness for another day, I want to focus on education.

I met Polly when she was thirteen years old. She turned up at one of my youth clubs in Manchester and was a pleasant girl, but life had not given her a good start; she had a low IQ, struggled with making friends and had a challenging home life. If you met her you would comment on what a nice girl she was. The following year, I started to run projects in her school during the school day. We spent nearly two years trying to get Polly to stay in class. She spent most of her day wandering around the corridors looking for someone to speak to. She didn’t understand any of her lessons and was years behind the other kids, so she would just stand up and walk out politely. At sixteen years old she left the school with zero qualifications. I bumped into her when she was seventeen years old; she was morbidly obese, unemployable and had no smile on her face. She used to smile all the time.

Imagine a different outcome for this lovely individual: imagine she attended a school that prepared her for employment, where she could have a meaningful life, meet people, and make friends – a place that gave her a reason to get out of bed in the morning and develop pride from earning a living.

You see, Polly had a quality that you cannot develop or train someone to have: she was a genuinely nice person. This is a trait that many businesses want and need. Imagine if we’d given her the skillset and confidence to work in housekeeping. Hundreds of hotels in Manchester city centre are regularly recruiting for positions which prioritise customer service. This outcome and the potential it offers is so much better than her reality now. We took away her spark.

According to the government’s own figures one in five children fail in our system

This is not to say our education system has seen no improvement. When I think back to my own secondary school experience in inner-city Manchester, I can still recall the blaring sound of ambulance sirens after my music teacher was stabbed forty-two times by a pupil for confiscating a pornographic magazine. I can still picture the face of a newly qualified female teacher who was cornered in the school stairwell by a dozen pupils and sexually assaulted. I am still in touch with a former classmate who, simply for talking and messing around, was kicked full force in the chest by a teacher, sending him flying across the room.

Although Polly wandered aimlessly through the school corridors, at least she was able to use fully-functioning doors. We could walk from our English classroom to our next lesson through a giant hole after some pupils had kicked out the bricks from the dividing wall.

So, let us not start a revolution. We know that 82% of pupils are not failed by the system, but that does not negate the need for robust improvement. According to the government’s own figures, one in five children fail in our current education system. In a briefing paper from the Children’s Commissioner, figures for England show that, in 2018, 18% of pupils left state-funded education having not achieved 5 GSCEs at Grade C. This means that nearly 100,000 young people every year are failing school. Pupils on free school meals do twice as badly: 37% do not achieve the stated educational level. As such, it is fair to say that we are failing children like Polly who would benefit most from a quality education.

In my experience, the majority of children who fail at secondary school fail in the first few months. Many pupils find primary school challenging but bearable: the school is small, all the teachers know their name, and they genuinely care about them. Then, suddenly, they are evicted from this safe space and sent to a huge school where no one knows their name, much less cares for them. This is week one – only five more years to go! It is traumatic. Is it any wonder that so many tune out and turn off?

Lack of discipline, parental engagement and the fixation on university progression means that the purpose of education often appears to be less about preparing a child for adult life and more about supplying universities with an endless chain of fee-paying customers.

So why not give pupils a choice? First of all, I would like to see a Technical Secondary School in every neighbourhood: a school where pupils who are not academically inclined can excel and where practical experience is a priority. These schools would not serve as a dumping ground for academically-challenged pupils or those with behavioural issues, but rather a new way of schooling fit for our modern society.

This would have been perfect for fourteen-year-old Alexandru: a Romanian boy who volunteered at my youth club who was smart and had the right temperament. Once we started working in his school, we realised he was kicked out of class several times a day for his behaviour, which came as a huge shock. We discussed his behaviour with him and how it would impact him in the future. He would just smile and say it didn’t matter as he was going to work with his dad once he left. He left school at 16 years old with no qualifications. I was informed he didn’t even turn up to any of his exams.

Picture a different outcome for this bright young lad. Imagine if we could have offered him more options to enhance his vision for the future: self-employment training, employment law, accountancy and marketing courses which could have helped him develop into an entrepreneur and be a role model for many other young people. It is possible that if he’d had this choice at the time, he could have broken the chain of apathy in education with his own children.

Someone once told me that education is the gift we give our children. We need to remember this.

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