Words of Advice for Young People

A few maxims that young people in their formative years may find useful as they begin to make their own way in the world:

1. Do not go to school

Going to school, at least the majority of schools as they are organised at this point in the 21st Century, is not a beneficial activity for the majority of young people. In fact, for most young people it is positively harmful. Avoid it if you can.

Why do I make this inflammatory statement? Well, somebody needs to. As a young person in the school system, there will be immense pressure put upon you to “succeed” in this system. You will be told continually that this success is vital. Teachers and parents will stress again and again how important it is that you get good grades, that you “do your best.”  The media around you will support this view that the most important thing about school is the grades that you come away with. TV will show images of happy, smiling teenagers celebrating their “good results” on results day. Newspapers will publish league tables of exam results so that your parents can work out which are the “good” schools to send you to.  “Good” schools get good exam results. Nice and simple.

Except it is not. This apparently simple equation of good exam results with good schools needs more careful consideration. Needs unpicking.

I have spent a lifetime in schools. As pupil. Then teacher. Then governor. I have been relatively successful in the school system. But I have become increasingly convinced that it is a system that is failing our young people. I am of the considered opinion that it is a system that is no longer fit for the purpose of educating our young people. It is a system that is extremely efficient at what it does. But what it does has precious little to do with education. Our schools, it seems to me, are not actually designed to educate. So, what are schools designed to do?

The simple answer is Control. Our schools are primarily designed to control our young people. The claim that they are designed to educate is just a decoy – a distraction.

Consider the present situation: We are handing down to our young people a planet that we have wrecked. A world divided and torn apart by war.  A world where there are huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor. A world where some starve while others die from being obese. A world where we cut down the rainforests that give us air to breathe. A world where species become extinct on a regular basis. Where climate change is now pretty much inevitable. And none of this is Natural or Unavoidable. It is all a result of our actions. A result of our collective ignorance, cowardice and greed. We have failed big time. Failure on an epic level.

If I was a young person being handed this pile of failure as a future, I would be pretty angry. No, I would be fucking livid.

“You mean you knew climate change was coming years ago and you did what? You decided to ignore it, carry on as normal, continue to extract fossil fuels, cut down rainforests and cut subsidises to renewable energy sources. Well, thanks very much, Dad. Nice one.”

Young people should be up in arms, demanding change. Demanding a better future. Demanding schools that will equip them to deal with the fucked up future that we are handing them. Demanding an education that will enable them to cope with the challenges that lie ahead. And the least we should do is to provide this. Be honest. Admit that we fucked up. Say sorry and put all our efforts into giving our young people whatever tools we can to make a better job than we did.

Trouble is, we have no idea what they need. If we knew the answers we could deal with the problems ourselves. All we can be sure of is that our present way of thinking got us into this mess and seems incapable of getting us out again. Behaviours that we regard as normal and assumptions that we hold to be common sense do not seem to be serving us well. Not up to the job of ensuring our survival as a species. Which is a pretty fundamental failure. So, we have to enable our young people to Think Differently. We have to trust that they will eventually find a way to sort themselves out if we allow them to be creative and experiment. The prime goal of our education system should be to encourage young people to Think Differently.

But that’s a bit scary. It involves the unknown. Letting go of the reins. Giving up control. Trusting.

So what do we do instead? How do we respond to the very real challenge of educating our children for an uncertain future?

More tests.  More “standards.” We ramp up the pressure even more. In the UK we actually remove education from our schools in order to make way for testing. Pretty much the entirety of Year 6, the culmination of a child’s Primary education, is given over to preparation for SATs. And, in 2016, 47% of children failed to meet the “pass” level. 47% of our children were told that they “failed” their primary education. 47% of our children have been told that they are “failures.” Brilliant. Excellent job. That’ll sort them out, then. Still, at least 53% will begin their Secondary education with a misplaced sense of superiority and self satisfaction that will serve them well in their lives ahead.

And it only gets worse. Secondary schools think that they are more important than Primary schools. They think that Primary education is just preparation for the proper stuff that happens in Secondary schools. And they don’t trust Primary schools. Any testing done by Primary schools will be discounted by Secondaries. They will dismiss any assessments done by Primary staff as questionable data. They will test the pupils again on entry to their school. In order to get reliable data. Thus effectively saying to the pupils that everything they have done in school so far was just mucking about – the proper stuff starts now. Now, things get serious. No more playing about. No more fun.

And  “playtime” becomes “break.” The language has always fascinated me. When you are young, you have “playtime.” Time set aside for Play. An acknowledgement, at least, that Play is necessary and deserving of some Time. But, in Secondary school, that language is deemed “childish”. Any child using the term “playtime” will be laughed at, mocked for their lack of sophistication. Instead of “playtime” we have “break.” A word that has no value in itself. A word that is only defined by what it isn’t. A “break” only has meaning because it is a break from something else. Something more important. It is merely a pause before we get back to work – which is important. A “break” is just a space between. Empty. Without value. And, what is that,ultimately, saying to our children? It is saying that the time in the school day when we give them a little freedom to decide how to spend their time. Fifteen minutes when we ease back the control a little and allow them time to spend how they wish. That Time has no value in itself. It is empty Time. A waste of Time. We are telling them that they are not capable of managing their own time sensibly. We are training our young people to surrender control of Time. Training them to accept the notion that there are two types of Time: Work Time and Leisure Time. And it is “normal” to accept that Work Time is Big, Important, Unpleasant, Valuable and Organised By Others whereas Leisure Time is Lesser, Pleasant but Meaningless, Worthless and Organised By Others.

So, bringing these threads together, I would argue that schools in the UK have become an elaborate sifting system designed to reward compliance, reinforce social divisions, disempower young people and support a failing status quo.

You would be better off not going.

Which is not to say that nothing good happens in school. If you are lucky you will make some good friends, spend time with some inspirational teachers, have life changing experiences. But, if you do, it will be a happy accident – not the result of a well designed education system.

Unfortunately, it is the law that you have to go to school in some form. And, for most, that will mean attending mainstream schools. Schools that will fail to equip you for the challenges ahead. I am sorry. I tried my best to do what I could to create something different. But I failed too. I am sorry. All I can advise those that still have to attend our schools is Do Not Go – by which I mean, even if you have to physically be there, do not go there in your totality.

Do not give them your soul.

Remember that it is just their game. Refuse to play it.

If you fail their exams, it does not mean that you are a failure. It just means that they have failed you.

It doesn’t matter.

They will insist that it does because they want you to believe that their way is the only way.

It isn’t.

There are many other ways. Better ways. The world is an extraordinary place. Far richer than you can imagine or they would have you know.

Refuse to be defined by what grades you get. They are not important.

What is important is that you understand who you are and become that person as fully as possible.

You are important. As important as anybody else. You don’t have to pass an exam to prove that.

Know that you are important. Know that so is everyone else.

Demand the right to be honoured as yourself. Honour others as themselves.

Recognise that you are playing a game. Have fun. Do not take it too seriously.

Play.

Appreciate Wisdom and recognise that it is often told by Fools.

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4 Replies to “Words of Advice for Young People”

  1. Very powerful, Andy.
    I have shared it with my kids, but there is this constant dilemma. They are forced to go to school, but showing them how futile it actually is, how can I justify still sending them there? How can, as a parent, stand by when they do drop out? Wondering what they will do and how they are supposed to “make it” in this fucked up scheme we call society? You can tell the impact the system had on me, right? (hint of cynicism)

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    1. Hi Ron,
      Sorry that it has taken so long to reply – I have been wrestling with a variety of problems(?) opportunities(?) that have kind of paralysed me. Left me with so much that I want to say that I am rendered silent. It happens every now and again.
      One of the issues has been my son finishing school. He has never found it easy or satisfying and is glad that his school days are finally over. Many of his friends are now off to university. Amongst the English Middle Classes it is taken forgranted that is what you will do. My son has chosen not to. He is going to Drama School. He wants to learn to be an actor. I am proud of him. He has made an active choice about his future. Not just followed the well worn path. It has not been easy for him. Not many people understand what he has done. Few of his peers get it. Most adults insist that his exam results are important to him. He tries to explain that they are not – the Drama School he has a place at selects on audition alone. He tries to explain that he has made a conscious decision to step out of the world where grades matter. “But, it’s always good to have good grades to fall back on.” they say. “No,” my son tries to explain, “I have decided to live a life where they do not matter. Please respect my choice.”

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  2. Hi Andy
    I agree with much of what you say about school and the imposition of conformity – I thought so when I was at school and I still do. I’m not so keen on the ‘consider the present situation’ bit. Climate change is an unspeakably terrible disaster on the horizon – yes. But there are some positive things going on that everybody I know prefers to pretend aren’t happening, because they undermine their anti-establishment everything’s fucked up world view.
    One is that the world is largely at peace now and has been for some decades. I think we might consider the two world wars that took place in the last century and be thankful that we have only a fraction of that of that level of conflict and suffering at present.
    And, while the gap between rich and poor is appalling, the fact is that the worst of poverty is being alleviated in a big proportion of the world: more people have access to safe drinking water, infant mortality is coming down, people are not starving, infectious diseases are being eradicated etc.
    Oh, and I think that many more people in the world live in a more liberal society than we did a few decades ago, less racist, less homophobic and with more power for women.
    Three massive things to celebrate then but we can’t do it, it’s not part of our present day culture. Why is that?

    Are we going to meet up? I do hope so. Will you come to visit? We’re in Taliesin and I’m richardtaliesin@hotmail.com.
    bye for now
    Richard

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    1. Thanks Richard. You are right. There has been much positive progress in the world and it is good to remind ourselves that human beings are capable of doing good stuff too and we should celebrate that. I am not convinced that we live in a more peaceful world. There seems to be a lot of war raging around the planet at the moment. We are just fortunate that it isn’t on our doorstep. But, yes, we do live in a culture where “news” is always bad news. Apart from one item at the end of the news report. Why is that? I would say that again it is about Control. Control through Fear. A Media that uses fear to keep the populace compliant.

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