Over the past couple of weeks I have been interviewing inspiring teachers who are doing an amazing job at turning young people's lives around through the Prince's Trust xl programme. I've heard stories about young people from unimaginable family situations, who previously wouldn't have even left the house in the morning, now thriving in work or full time education, due to the support they received through the scheme, via their schools and colleges.
At a conference a couple of weeks ago, the Education Secretary Michael Gove attacked a culture that believes that poverty limits the achievements of poor children. Mr Gove said he did not accept this, adding that there were a growing number of schools "proving that deprivation need not be destiny - that with the right teaching and the right values they [young people] can outperform everyone's expectations".
Although this is a complex issue and certainly not black and white (as good teaching on its own certainly can't solve all of society's problems) I do believe from these recent conversations with teachers that this can be true for some young people.
However it also got me thinking about a couple of big challenges the education system needs to tackle, to make sure that young people don't continue to pass low aspirations from one generation to the next, as it is still the case that 1.03 million 16 to 24-year-olds were considered unemployed in the three months to February.
Does a top-down, ‘one size fits all,' traditional education system fit into 21st century Britain? And how does this system need to change?
Despite many Government schemes being launched or mooted recently (such as university technical colleges) and attempts to review vocational education provision (as seen in the Wolf Report), popular opinion still seems to prevail that you are only seen as a success if you get good GCSEs, A-levels and a degree. This really surprises me, considering that less than half of the UK population actually go on to university.
Andy Powell of the independent education foundation Edge recently pointed out that the Government “must recognise that young people are individuals with different talents and dreams. As such, not all children learn in the same way.”
All of the teachers I have spoken to recently through the Prince's Trust firmly back this up. They are passionate about the fact that a ‘one size fits all' approach to education is outdated and that a system needs to be in place where every young person can discover what they are good at and be recognised for their talents, no matter what their background.
Secondly, what incentive is there for a teacher to invest time working with a disengaged pupil who may not achieve a good GCSE, when their success is measured on the percentage of A-Cs their class achieves?
At a time when morale within the teaching profession is at an all time low, there seems to be a need for time-stretched teachers to have their work with underachieving young people recognised in a more official way, rather than just receiving a ‘pat on the back' for their good work. This is going to be particularly true in the coming months, as the recession means that more and more students in areas of social deprivation face poverty and will be in desperate need of school or college support. The shocking results of a recent Prince's Trust across the UK revealed that almost two-thirds (65%) of the teachers they work with come across students who do not have clean clothes at least once a week, with 40% of these saying they witness this every day.
At a recent Q&A session I attended with Graham Stuart MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, he spoke precisely about this urgent need for a new type of incentive, to help improve the morale of teachers, and improve teaching quality. Though he wasn't sure exactly what this incentive would be, or how it might be implemented, it is certainly on the Committee's radar.
So in conclusion, while Michael Gove is right that there are great examples of good practice going on schools and colleges across the UK - as the work of the Prince's Trust proves - and that ‘deprivation need not be destiny,' sadly for many young people it still is. The issue of social mobility is an extremely complex one and a lot of challenges lie ahead if the Government is to shape an education system that is inclusive of all young people, regardless of their background. Far more than I can ever cover in one blog post!