Ask a group of 16 or 17-year-olds what they want to do in the future, and the chances are that only one or two will have a definite plan or the beginnings of a plan.
The majority will be wrestling with confusion, no hope, and negativity. Some of this will have been influenced by family life, the experience of friends and acquaintances, and school life in general. It will be difficult to overturn.
School life, particularly for pupils in their final two years, can be a wrecking ball. Eight lessons each day, possibly more, at least two if not three hours of homework that is not coordinated by the school leading to overload on Tuesdays and poorly performing pupils on Wednesday, endless testing, and for most students, at least two or three late afternoons attending another education institute be it for music, art, drama, or sport.
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Early starts, and barely getting eight hours of quality sleep, let alone time to relax and chill, are not good a good basis for young people about to enter the world of adulthood, higher education, and the world of work. So how on earth can we expect these same pupils to make informed choices about life after school?
The expectation is to go to university, there are no alternatives. It’s a family tradition or a national trait. Gap years are only for the rich and wealthy. Without a university education, you will get nowhere. Depending on the country where a university education is free, prospective students will feel compelled to accept places on courses that were not their first or second choices. Still, because they are free, there is an obligation to accept.
By the end of the first semester, attendance at lectures is down, some students have formally left the university, others have lost the will to endure a course that isn’t for them, some can’t see how their course connects to reality, and a few realise that university just isn’t for them at that time.
For many of these students, an uncertain future awaits and some will have to cope with disappointed parents, small debts accrued from the first semester, and nowhere to live. If they are fortunate to have a part-time job, they have a head start.
The universities administration systems will kick in, mostly devoid of any human and pastoral concern. Transferring to other courses will be problematic, possibly not allowed under the free place schemes, or not encouraged due to the extra work the administrative staff will have to do.
University education is not the be-all and end-all of life. There are alternatives that include further education relevant to particular professions.
A young person who embarks on a vocational course or an apprenticeship could well end up studying for a Master’s degree in their late twenties and because of the experience they have under their belt, the studies are more accessible and relevant, and more rewarding.
How do you get experience if nobody is willing to offer the opportunity to learn?
Many companies outside of the traditional trade sectors rarely employ young unskilled workers who might be talented. They want experience but how do you get experience if the companies themselves are not willing to offer opportunities to learn?
While parents are the primary educators, schools, colleges, and universities are not the exclusive providers of learning and teaching. The business community has a role to play.
Placements and internships can be beneficial, but they can also be a complete waste of time if they are nothing more than a symbolic gesture of a partnership with a college or university. Internships need structure and learning outcomes, and the business itself needs to benefit. Universities are often weak in creating this framework with internship hosts.
The business sector can also play a valuable part in secondary or high school education. Workshops and talks aimed at 15-17-year-olds can shed light on just what businesses are looking for from future employees.
Professor Josie Fraser, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of The Open University in the UK in the “Future of Learning Report 2021” commissioned by Future Learn, writes,
“I went to university at 18, and I’ve never left. That’s not going to be a common career path in the future with the pace of acceleration of technological change. I think for the younger generation now, what good secondary education can give them in the UK is the ability to learn how to learn, learn how to change, and learn how to understand new opportunities”.
Who is going to show pupils in secondary schools how to learn, how to change, and understand those new opportunities? The same teachers who already face constant changes to their respective curriculums? Teachers will play their part. Who will help them? Instead of government-appointed advisors and self-created consultants, why not engage the local business community – self-starters, entrepreneurs, SME owners, and if the CEO of a multi-national can be persuaded to leave the relative comfort of the boardroom, even better.
This is a win-win situation for business leaders and owners. An opportunity to shape tomorrow’s workforce. An opportunity to inspire and encourage. An opportunity to tell it as it is. Are they willing to embrace this opportunity?
If today’s secondary school pupils, who are set to become next year’s students and potential employees, are to avoid some of the stress associated with what to do when leaving school, the business sector has to step up to the plate and create and offer opportunities to find the answers and where possible pathways to employment that offer alternative forms of learning and qualifications.