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

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