I was excited to take part in a lively panel discussion to mark the launch of young Lives, Young Futures, a five-year national study being conducted by KCL and The Edge Foundation. Placing youth voice front and centre, its aim is to determine how the UK’s vocational and educational training system can better support those young people who don’t go to university.
I was joined by fellow youth activists Aliyah, Jaiden, Shanique, Fatma and Calvin. Bringing diverse views, experiences and passions, we shared what Ovid-19 has taught us and how we’d like to see education change.
Impacts of the pandemic
First up, each of us shared our experiences of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, mental health was a key issue, although the causes were varied. For Shanique, who graduated in 2020, the biggest challenge was finding that employment opportunities had dried up. Fatma, meanwhile, highlighted lack of access to resources and poor connectivity, while I said that I’d felt isolated at times. Jaiden, a mental health advocate, believed that one benefit of all this was that we were all learning to talk about mental health more.
The thing that came through strongest, though, was the sense of resilience. The media is quick to label us as a ‘lost generation’ so I think this is really important to mention. Shanique felt that Covid-19 has given us a chance to think bigger: “There’s nothing we can’t do. We just have to decide what we want and how to get there.” Calvin agreed: “Young people face so much anxiety, especially with exams. The pandemic has allowed us to reflect and voice our concerns.”
I couldn’t put it better! The pressures of education have always been there. But with exams cancelled and learning more flexible, we’re able to focus on what really matters.
So how should education change?
The discussion moved on to the purpose of education and what changes we’d like to see. Everyone agreed that the current obsession with grades is not sustainable. It fails to treat young people as individuals with unique strengths and dreams. Shanique explained how she’d struggled to find work, despite graduating with first-class honours (including a placement year). She’s now secured a job starting later in the year, but this highlights that good grades aren’t always enough.
Overall, we felt that the system needs a greater focus on practical and employability skills. Fatma, who advocates BTECs, said that secondary education hardly prepares us for the real world: “Education is meant to prepare young people for the future. But the current curriculum doesn’t even teach us how to do practical things like write a CV or get a mortgage.”
Calvin, an HND graduate and youth advisor to Schools of Tomorrow, agreed that education must focus more on personal interests. I said, as a degree apprentice at IBM, that we should be prepared for any path: “This should be led by young people because we know what we need.”
Jaiden summed it up best: “This country has a "success before survival approach" to education. I was pushed to university, with little discussion about apprenticeships or BTECs. There was no choice. Young people should feel safe, valued and nurtured. We need to build a system that values empathy, well being and agency.”
This consensus from those of us inside the system shows that it’s not currently working. Employers value skills over grades and we face huge challenges in the future. End rote learning! We need practical, skills-based education and more technical options!
What can youth activists do?
What role can youth activists play in changing things? Whether promoting apprenticeships, making the case for stripped-back curriculums, or getting rid of exams (we’ve shown we can!) everyone agreed that we must raise our voices. “It’s how movements are started,” Fatma said, “It has a ripple effect.” Jaiden, meanwhile, felt that we must activate other young people as change-makers, giving them the confidence to create the change they want to see. My thoughts exactly!
Shanique had an interesting point, though, which was that many education resources – like careers services – are currently underused. She was keen for young people to maximise the opportunities available to us. This is really empowering. Our discussion focused largely on shortcomings in the system, so it was nice to acknowledge that it’s not all bad! Perhaps we can do more to promote these kinds of opportunities.
Historically, young people have little say in shaping the policies that impact us. We’re told what, when and how to learn. It feels very passive. But the pandemic is changing that. Despite the challenges, we have a new opportunity to shape our own futures. Youth voice promotes that. To everyone who tuned in, I urge you to sustain the discussion online. The dialogue does not end here…it continues. Exactly as it should!
Shanique York BSc (Hons) is a Business and Sociology Graduate, MSc Management Student, MMU BAME Ambassador and a Youth Employment UK Youth Ambassador.
Jaiden Corfield studies PPE at Oxford University. He is an educational activist and mental health advocate.
Fatma Shami is an education and social activist, change-maker and public speaker.
Euan Wilcox is a degree apprentice at IBM. He advocates degree apprenticeships through the Association of Apprentices and Young Apprentice Ambassador Network.
Calvin Weston recently graduated with a Higher National Diploma in Musical Theatre. He is a youth advisor to Schools of Tomorrow and an advocate for the arts.