There has been a lot of media coverage recently about the ‘Youth Of Today’ (YoT) and their employment prospects – the high unemployment rates, their lack of basic employability skills, how state school pupils are under-represented in further education and certain careers, the attempts to create links between schools and employers etc. etc. Recently I was involved in one of the latter initiatives, and after spending a day with a classroom of Year 10 students (that’s 4th year, to those of us who are Generation ‘O’ Level), I can now say with some conviction (and no doubt a complete lack of political correctness) what the problem may be. Far too many of the YoT, frankly, don’t give a damn.
I was very happy to be giving up a day of my time to visit a school and voluntarily (i.e., for nought pence and a school dinner) deliver a workshop designed to show students how to do a CV and job interview, and help them to understand what employers look for in candidates. All with a view to helping them in their future careers – what’s not to like? Perhaps naively, I expected a bunch of engaged, interested, enthusiastic teenagers who were keen to do something different with their school day and find out stuff they needed to know. Well, I got just one of those teenagers – maybe two, at a push.
But the rest were… well. Where to start? How about the gratuitously miserable, sullen girl who sat as far away as possible with her head turned to the wall, refusing to participate or even make eye contact, with a vocabulary consisting of simply “No!” and “Don’t wanna!” Or the jokers who spoke up plenty, but only to come out with flippant, smart-arsed comments? The boy who frequently got up and wandered around the room, using the bin and his handouts for target practice, or the girl who got fed up with sitting on her chair and decided to sit on the floor under the desk instead? Or maybe the ones who put their heads down on the desk and appeared to be having a snooze – when they weren’t having their own loud conversations, that is?
As a trainer, I’m used to having a room full of grown-ups who generally behave themselves, are respectful and are happy to be actively involved. But trying to get this bunch to do any of the exercises, role plays etc. was like trying to mould treacle. I’m zero tolerance for bad behaviour, at any age, so there was a certain amount of voice projection and sharp comments on my part. There was an observing teacher in the room pretty much the whole time, whose attempts to restore some order were much more mild-mannered (and somewhat less effective). Afterwards the teacher said to me “That went really well! They were all engaged and listening, answering your questions – they seemed really interested!”
Eh? Seriously? I pointed out that this really wasn’t evident. “Oh no” he continued, “It’s normally a lot worse than that. They’re usually off out of their seats and allsorts.” OMG! (as the YoT would say, or rather, text.) Is this really what ‘good’ looks like in schools these days? 30 years back, my class was expected to sit up straight, pay attention, put our hands up to speak, and stand up only when a teacher entered the room. Any (rare) deviation from that and a teacher’s wrath (and possibly a ruler) would be felt.
Have standards really changed so much? I don’t think this lot would as much as spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T, let alone demonstrate it. But they would all have been perfectly capable of behaving properly, if they’d made the effort. As it was, they actively chose not to – in no small part due to a lack of both incentive and consequence, but their choice nonetheless.
Call me harsh, but it was pretty obvious to me that for more than a few of that group, a more useful lesson would be how to fill in a UB40 form. The bizarre thing is, the teacher seemed to have a point. When they filled in their evaluation forms later, the comments were mostly positive, indicating that they were actually taking it in (although to what effect, I have no idea) and some even actually enjoyed it! At least, as far as I could tell, after deciphering the sprawls and atrocious spelling (one now feels more able to ‘right a good CV’. I’m not so sure.)
Which brings me to another, related point. A friend of mine is an English teacher, and I once looked through a pile of ‘creative writing’ essays she had to mark. The most creative aspect, it seemed, was the random spelling, punctuation and grammar. I offered to help go through them all with a red pen, making corrections – but no, this is apparently not the way. She explained that they were supposed to focus on the imaginative content, not the accuracy and overall correctness. Again – seriously?! No surprise then that employers are having to spend money on basic literacy training for school leavers!
Another recent media furore has been the suggestion that the education and exam system is not robust enough and needs to regress a few decades. Each year the GCSE and A level results are the ‘best ever’, and yet the standard of job applications and CVs I see gets worse all the time. No wonder, if the basics of being able to write accurately are so far down the list of priorities! Apparently this is because there is more of an emphasis on developing social and personal skills – really? Doesn’t seem to be working too well, going by my classroom experience.
I can absolutely understand why some teachers lose the plot and lash out at pupils. I can also understand why some choose to give up and let the classroom run riot (possibly out of a self-preservation instinct, given the violent tendencies of some students towards teachers.) Don’t get me wrong, there are some good kids and good schools out there – I have many in my client portfolio. I don’t think it is as much a class thing as we are lead to believe though. I am from a very working-class background, but I was self-disciplined (as well as just disciplined), worked hard, knew to respect my elders, and knew that getting into trouble would be a very bad thing, best avoided. That is what lead to my success in life – as evidenced by other kids from my school who were completely the opposite, and who ultimately went on to achieve very little.
It is no surprise to me then that there is a divide when it comes to further education and career opportunities. But I have to wonder – how successful can all these education-employer initiatives etc. be, when a lot of the time, the responsibility for pupil’s success or otherwise lies with the kids themselves? I strongly – and sadly – suspect that the future for employers is not bright.
(I’m now stepping off my soapbox before the PC brigade blame everyone except the YoT themselves.)