There are many talents and many paths to success, but our education system is not currently meeting the needs of all young people. A new film presents a compelling call for a fresh approach, including more practical and vocational learning options in schools.
“Education, education, education: paperwork, paperwork, paperwork” – that’s how Scott Harflett, 17, describes his experience of school. The system failed for him, as it does for thousands of others, and a new film that is being premiered today looks at what is going wrong and how can we address the issues.
Designed in the 19th century, our education system is not preparing young people for the challenges that lie ahead of them. Learning is based on an outdated curriculum, with too much emphasis on testing. As Dr Cream Wright, global chief of education for Unicef, says, “We are steeped in static knowledge that fails to prepare young people for the emerging issues of our time.”
The film, We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For, which was inspired and guided by Oscar-winning producer Lord Puttnam, focuses on the educational experiences of five young people from Swindon. The producer Caroline Rowland describes how the film came about: “We wanted to bring the myriad of opinions about education to life and decided to give a group of young people their voice and then add analytical comment.” The aim of the film, says Puttnam, is to focus on “what’s being done well, what needs to change, and what can be learned from best practice in schools all over the world.”
“We looked,” says Rowland, “at the three pillars on which the current education system globally is built – curriculum, testing and teaching – and we became convinced we need to reassess them all.”
The film shows how the system is particularly hard on children, like Harflett, who do not fit into the mainstream. Harflett always found reading and writing difficult and, as a result, hated school. His experience, as the film testifies, is a common one. As Dame Ruth Silver, chair of Learning and Skills Improvement Service, says: “We label young people– people who are enormously talented and motivated – as dysfunctional because they don’t quite fit in.”
According to recent research by the independent education foundation, Edge, which is one of the supporters of the film, nearly half of all adults were regarded as average or poor students when they were at school. As a result more than 2.8 million of these Britons said they were made to feel like a failure when they were in secondary education.
This was certainly the experience for David Bryant, 17. He never fully engaged with the education system, despite having been to nearly every school in Swindon. He had a troubled childhood and felt angry and frustrated with the system and felt a failure at school. But as his careworker says: “He is intelligent, but he missed a lot of schooling. But this need not hold him back from following something that will make him happy.”
Henry Winkler, the actor and author, agrees: “For some kids, school is torture.” Children, he says “are raining through the cracks; they are left behind and you can’t even see them any more, they are so far in the dust.”
Andy Powell, chief executive of Edge, says: “We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to realise their talent in school and that there should be many paths to success. It’s simply not good enough that young people are being labelled as a ‘poor’ or ‘average’ student because their potential is not being fulfilled through traditional academic teaching.”
So what is to be done? We need to prepare students to the real world, to refocus on practical learning and creativity and to give choices that show how training has economic benefits, both for society and for the individual. As Martin Stephen, high master at St Paul’s school, says: “These bright young people are probably the only natural resource that is going to left in the UK within the next 20 years. We have to bring these young people on and make the most of them.” And Eve Gordon, principal of West Met high school, shows from the successful achievements of her school how to do this: “People learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, when they’re learning about something that they chose, and when they do mind and hand learning together.”
This was true for Amy Scott, 17. She struggled at her school in Swindon and found the pressure of exams very stressful. It was only when she started doing a hairdressing course at college that she realised her true creativity. “It’s nice being creative, and when you’ve got the finished product you think ‘oh wow’ and you can be proud of yourself and everyone says how nice it is and that makes you feel good.”
This is the message of the film: we need to ensure our education system provides the right support and opportunities for every young person to develop their individual talents, and to make sure every young person leaves school feeling self-confident and proud of what they have achieved. As Rowland says, “Changing the system is going to take an enormous amount of political will, but all of us can take responsibility by helping young people to find out what they are good at.”
And in the words of Lord Puttnam: “It is time to shine the spotlight on our nation’s education, to stimulate what may well be an uncomfortable debate and encourage action. We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For is intended to act as a wake-up call. I’d like to think it has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for positive and overdue educational reform.”
For further information about We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For and to have your say on the UK’s education system visitwearethepeoplemovie.com
My role-model father: Joining the family business
Scott Harflett never enjoyed being at school and from his early days at nursery the education system didn’t work for him. “My experience of schools was pants,” he says. “I went to two secondary schools but wasn’t interested at all in what was going on.” Harflett has always found reading and writing difficult and this made learning a problem. “I didn’t want to learn to write but at least at my first school they understood me a bit. At my next school I felt they didn’t like me: they had favourite students and I wasn’t one of them.”
Despite finding school a struggle, Harflett got through his GCSE course and did his exams, and although he got low grades his parents are still proud of the fact that he stayed the course and sat the exams. As he says: “My parents always knew I’d go into a job that wasn’t in a office. They were a bit worried about me but they always knew I’d do a manual labour job and I’d be running my own company at a certain age.”
Harflett’s main role model is his father who struggled at school, too, only to go on to run a successful construction business. In a similar vein, Scott has discovered a real sense of achievement and pleasure in producing high-quality practical work. “The education system doesn’t work for people like me,” he says, “because we are more hands-on and we need to do practical things.”
While at school, he started going to college two days a week to do mechanics and really enjoyed the course. He thinks that there should be more hands-on learning at school, such as metalwork, joinery and plumbing. And he also thinks that there should be a really practical aspect to all vocational learning: “If you are doing electronics you should learn how to wire up a house – if you are doing woodwork you learn how to make a shelf.”
He left school after his GCSEs and his first job was plastering, which he really enjoyed. He went on to do fabricating and welding, which he liked but he was laid off. He then decided to start working with his father. “My dad is a heating engineer and runs his own company and he said to me: ‘Instead of just lazing around the house all day why don’t you come and work for me?’ ”
Harflett wants to go back to college to do another course and eventually hopes to run his own company. He found taking part in the film an enriching experience and says he has learned that everyone is different: “Not everyone wants to sit in an office typing on a computer all day long.”