Stop putting teenagers in an academic straitjacket
OUR children are among the unhappiest in the rich world, increasingly working in poor quality jobs after leaving school and unconfident about the future, as evidence in this year’s Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index -report). As a child and adolescent psychiatrist and mother of two, I am amazed at our blindness to the harm we do our teenagers.
No one group or institution is to blame. None of us seem able to escape the elitism that traps around 10 per cent of our young people in a snare of conformity and can make the other 90 per cent feel like failures. Pisa indices and attainment targets force schools to focus energies on those likely to achieve multiple As at Higher. Through a supply and demand culture in which we are all complicit, universities raise entry criteria to unattainable levels. A prominent Scottish university’s English department has entry criteria of five Highers at grade A and one at Grade B for sixth-year school pupils. This department has achieved its international reputation by producing some of the world’s top creative writers. Yet my favourite Scottish novelist, Jenni Fagan, at the age of 15 was setting out entirely on her own steam to experience life, rather than sitting in a bedroom cramming for Highers. This did not disadvantage her in the long run – she is close to completing her PHD and already has two first class degrees. We are all better off for the creative output her teenage years produced.
Even highly “academic” teenagers fall foul of our system if they stray from a well-furrowed path. My daughter, now 21 and living in San Francisco, has always had a love of books and a desire to study. She won a scholarship to spend her last two years of school in Costa Rica in a stimulating multi-national environment. After achieving high marks in her International Baccalaureate, she was refused entry to the Scottish universities she applied for, but her broad CV earned her a place at Berkeley. She is now considering whether she will ever return to Scotland.
Social enterprise could offer a new way forward for our young people if we were open-minded enough to embrace it. One successful example of the social economy is the Crafting Together workshop in Clydebank where staff of Kilpatrick School and volunteers develop craft-making skills in young people with learning disabilities: I am the proud owner of some jewellery the young people have created. I have a good friend who is part of the team and we often bemoan the fact that only academic qualifications are available to pupils leaving Scottish schools. There is no formal record of the attributes that could turn these young people into lifelong members of the Scottish workforce such as dependability, motivation and kindness.
The teenage years are a time when young people are learning about themselves, their friends and their place in the world. They need to learn to take increasing responsibility and gradually earn adult trust. If we want Scotland to be a thriving, creative, energetic society, we need our teenagers to learn about their potential by indulging their interests and by being freed up to enjoy music, dance, sport as well as – or, for some, instead of – academic subjects.
We have some tangible problems to tackle in Scotland: burgeoning obesity and mental illness in young people alongside a low business birth rate. In my view, all of these problems have their roots in the way we try to force our teenagers down one of two highly unsatisfactory routes: either conform to a stereotyped narrow focus on academia – or feel like a failure.
We need our teenagers to learn about their potential by indulging their interests