When it comes to developing as a person, the school system is failing us

Reimagining Education By Reegan

Wed, Oct 21, 20

A London college student shares: "Identity is what unifies us and what makes us different, why should we be denied the opportunity to find and explore it?"

Today, London college student Reegan speaks out about how the education system’s focus on testing is detracting from young peoples’ ability to develop a strong sense of self.

Growing up as young people, we are constantly exposed to environments that demand we establish a sense of who we are. Yet in educational environments, people show little interest in helping us to make sense of this process. The majority of the first eighteen years of our life is spent in the educational institutions, from primary to secondary to sixth form or college, with most people being encouraged to spend another three-eight years in university. In this time, each person is expected to discover and establish a strong sense of an independent and individual identity so that we feel confident and prepared to engage with our society in a meaningful way. We are told that committing our life to education is the best way to support our personal growth and development.

But if people listened to the experiences of young people, it would soon become clear that the education system is failing us. After removing other aspects of our identity such as ‘a sibling’, ‘relative’, or ‘a friend’, we find ourselves identified only as ‘students’. Nothing more, nothing less. We are pressured to abandon our passions and the things we love as we are forced to sacrifice our hobbies and interests, like sports, arts or reading, in order to be a ‘successful’ student.

In the eyes of Ofsted and educational institutions, a successful student is someone who achieves the top grades. By measuring success through grades, the education system fails to consider what true personal development means to young people. Personal development does not equate to perfect grades as they do not capture the multidimensional nature of intelligent or personal capability. Personal development can never truly be a priority when the focus is on preparing for exams. The term, ‘personal development’, as used by Ofsted, is not even given a workable definition.

Personal development should be our preparation for adult life, our ability to master skills such as teamwork, leadership, resilience, independence, creativity - crucial attributes that are required for later life.

Personal development should be the ability to feel confident in the life choices we make, knowing we’ve had the support in the educational system to support ourselves once leaving it. Yet, without clarity on what personal development means to academic institutions, we are left in a grey area of uncertainty. If no one at Ofsted cares enough to define it or explore ways of measuring whether students feel it is being achieved, young people are forced to conform to their limited and inadequate measure of exam performance.

The Department of Education has taken it upon themselves, without consulting young people, to focus on increasing the amount of A*-C grades rather than exploring how to support the personal development of students within education.

In the absence of an adequate framework for supporting students’ personal development, young people often experience education as a suffocating environment that limits our individuality and autonomy and in many cases, actively harms our sense of identity.

This can leave students feeling lost, isolated and disengaged from the world after being released back into it. People, who were previously nothing more than students, have no purpose - what was once ‘studying to get an A*’ is now nothing, what was once ‘getting into a good college, sixth form or university’ is no longer of importance.

Ex-students find it hard to come to terms with the idea that their A Levels or Btec or Degree will not guarantee a job, or a house, or financial stability, or, worst of all, happiness. In a society where many good qualifications should equate to happiness, and social and financial stability, when faced with the harsh reality that it may not be so, young people can feel as though we have failed, that it is a flaw within ourselves and easily fall into self-hatred and discontent - when in reality it is the failure of the education system that has not allowed young people to survive in the real world, it is the failure of the education system that has not provided skills of creativity, individuality, leadership, teamwork and more that is required in the ever changing job market.

Young people have limited what we believe we are capable of and have done since Year 6 SATs, to the extent that we allow the perception of ourselves and what we think others’ perceptions of us are to become toxic, leading to young people to believe that extreme levels of anxiety or stress and depression are normal. At the degree of which these anxiety, stress and depression levels are seen in young people across the nation; it comes a time to ask, “Is this a ‘snowflake’ generation, or have the demands of the job market and environment changed so much that the generation are unable to cope with the stresses they cause, and the stresses of the education system itself?”

Looking forward

This is by no means to say the education system should be abandoned. Education institutions provide knowledge and wisdom that cannot otherwise be gained and allow for a value of meritocracy, however making a change to allow more coursework and / or research (possibly in the style of an EPQ) instead of exams where students have to write assignments, allows for students to take more control in their learning and their passions - for example a list of History topics and the student has to pick and do an assignment on it, a list of Literature topics (books, poems, plays etc.) where students have to study thoroughly and complete an assignment. These small changes benefit students in allowing them to take their own interest in their learning, students find what they like and don’t like, it allows for their own creativity, individuality and identity to grow.

Students will choose subjects because they know they will have the opportunity to explore their passions and not have to sacrifice them instead. There should be a strong focus on skills the world will look for once we have left the education system, exercises that require teamwork, leadership, that help practice for interviews and conferences, skills that teach how to do taxes and about the economy, voting and banking. These small changes and adjustments mean young people will leave their educational institutions prepared, there will be less sense of confusion, loneliness and disconnect from society, young people will feel able to make life choices, knowing the education system prepared them for what it would be like once leaving it.

Identity is what unifies us and what makes us different. Why should we be denied the opportunity to find and explore it?

As part of our youth-led project Breaking The Silence, Reegan has been working with other young people to explore the education system’s impact on students – and propose tangible changes for a better future. Read more about the ongoing project here.