Too young to choose? – a parent's educational dilemma

My daughter recently got her GCSE results and has started her A level studies at 6th Form.  However, she has a problem.  In some ways it is a good problem to have, but in others it is worrying for me as a parent, an employer and someone with an interest in building a healthy society.  

Her problem is this.  She now has to choose to focus her attention, specialise and study just three subjects for the remainder of her school level education.  She actually liked studying all of her GCSE subjects and got good enough grades to continue to study any of them further.  She has wide ranging interests and doesn’t yet know what she wants to study or ultimately do for work after she completes her education.  Chances are she will be working in a rapidly changing world for at least 50 years so in reality the requirements of her employers and the nature of her work is likely to change massively during her lifetime so I’m not sure that it is even possible to have enough foresight to know this anyway.  

So I have a burning question at the moment: Why do we require such tunnelled approach to education so early in life?

My suspicion is that it is down to the sometimes archaic approach we have to thinking about higher education.  My personal view is that this manifests, often unhelpfully, in a couple of ways as follows:

  1. A university degree is still held up by most as the “best” sign of a successfully educated young (and maybe not so young) person, despite the fact that many university curricula are not designed around either personal, societal or employment requirements.  
  2. A disproportionate emphasis is placed on quality and volume of research papers produced by post graduate teams when ranking higher education institutions, when often that ranking is used by the public to imply a much broader understanding of “quality”.
  3. Funding mechanisms for universities, both direct and indirect are significantly influenced by these research based rankings.  

In turn this background drive behaviours and actions in universities, schools and homes that have led to the situation where a 16 year old finds it very hard to get a rounded and multifaceted education that is considered to be of high quality:

  1. Universities are understandably often highly influenced by research agendas
  2. Delivery of high quality research papers requires a cohort of deeply technically focussed and single minded post graduate students and staff
  3. Selecting a broad pool of similarly focussed and single minded undergraduates improves the chances of having a deep pool to select from when picking post-graduate candidates.
  4. Objective university entrance criteria are framed in achievement of three “A” Level results and subjective assessment criteria of non-academic activity and potential are being dropped in the pursuit of academic specialism.
  5. Schools that operate in the socio-demograpic circles that aspire to high education attainment are highly motivated to help children get places at their first choice university and therefore focus almost entirely on getting the best possible results in the three “A” levels that are the basis of entrance assessment.
  6. Schools increasingly encourage “non-academic” interests to be highly vocationally focussed to ensure that to the extent that subjective assessments on candidates are made by universities, students demonstrate unwavering commitment to their stated field of interest.

The result of this is that my 16 year old daughter is now forced to not only select a very narrow curriculum but is encouraged to use her free time to reinforce this specialism rather than to maintain a broad set of interests.  As a parent I don’t think that this is the best thing for her and kids like her, for the places she may work and the people she may work for and with, and ultimately for our broader society and economy.  Is it right that our approach to education has changed little since Victorian times when the needs of society and government were very different?  

Here at Nesta we are working with a wide range of organisations in the field of education, including funders, publishers, service providers, schools and companies developing innovative technologies that we hope will provide the tools and environments to explore and support the development of education tools that equip young, and not so young people to learn relevant life and employment skills throughout their lives and it is exciting that there are a growing number of schools, higher education institutions and employers that are beginning to challenge much of the legacy thinking in the sector.  You can read about some of our work on the main Nesta Website and check out our investment portfolio here on the Nesta Investments site.  

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