A quick scan through news items about the attitudes and skills of young people can be an alarming experience. The headlines shout with lurid tales of risky behaviour, and worrying attitudes to work, old people, drinking, voting, police – you name it. Maybe we older people like to read about the shortcomings of the new generation and gain some sort of pleasure by having our views reinforced that the world is going to ‘hell in a handcart’.
Many criticisms of young people are in fact anecdotal, or result from surveys of the attitudes of older people towards young people, which produce a slightly different truth. The CBI skills report tells us every year that young people are ill equipped for the transition to work, lacking basic communication and number skills. Recently an industrialist spoke of the tragedy of a generation that ‘can’t fix gadgets’, another bemoaned the loss of the art of the handshake. Colleagues in Higher Education are concerned about a lack of critical thinking and research skills, although it is hard to tell if it was ever thus, something endemic, or a change in the nature of the intake.
Of course, when you look into the detail of the surveys and studies that have spawned these negative stories, the picture becomes more balanced, positive even! It is possible to read evidence of young people being diligent and hardworking in fact, and even that they show a capacity to care for the well-being of others and the planet. Young people in the UK might even be some of the happiest. According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, published in April 2014, young people in the UK rank number 4 in a Global Youth Well-being index out of a study of 30 countries.
Through our own contact with schools, we know that young learners are incredibly hard working, engaged and creative. We have also worked with professional organisations such as the NUS which gives young people a much-needed voice on many issues, in the face of the myth about a generation that does not care or cannot articulate its views. OCR has also lent its support to Student Voice, a democratic and student-led organisation working towards becoming the representative body of secondary school students in England.
Yet the myth of young peoples’ failings is strong. A relatively recent manifestation of the anxiety about the skills, attitudes and behaviours of young people, picked up on by Nicky Morgan, is the return to discussions about ‘character and resilience’. People who talk about character in education are a broad church ranging from the highly respected and rigorous Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues to some rather dewy-eyed individuals harking back to Aristotle, to some advocates of extreme fresh air. Perhaps the genesis of this new conversation about character development in education is above all a reaction to a narrowing academic core and a set of all- dominating school accountability measures – a realisation that we are in danger of creating an obsession with exams, not education.
As an exam board, OCR is bound to believe that exams are very important. But things have gone too far; education goes way beyond exams. A broad rich curriculum and pedagogy which encourages inquiry and critical thinking and helps people to develop an empathy with a range of perspectives (beyond any single set of ‘British values’), an approach that nurtures skills in Maths and English and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding might take us closer to what is meant by an ‘education’. Our partnership with Whole Education for example, which, as the name suggests, campaigns for a fully-rounded education, supports their conference programme as well as giving OCR the opportunity to shadow teachers in their networked schools and to work together on areas such as STEM.
All these things have to work together however – there is no ‘bolt on’ we can call character and resilience. And there are no crude accountability measures for these things either.
There are many versions of the truth about the skills and attitudes of young people but we should take note above all that young people need to be given confidence and trust – that’s what they respond to – and if we knock them all the time, we might be creating the problem, we certainly won’t be solving it. One thing is for certain, our children will have to be pretty skilful to adapt to the competitive and economically challenging future us older, wiser folk have built for them.
Head of Policy, OCR
This article first appeared in the Spring issue of OCR's Agenda.