Under pressure

How a more balanced view of risk and education can make way for new opportunities

Young people are being sucked into a culture of grim realism since the economic downturn, and are pressured to make cautious choices earlier in their lives. Dr. Simon Ofield-Kerr, Vice-Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, discusses how a more balanced view of risk and education would make way for new opportunities.

We all need to make hard-headed choices throughout our lives. An increasingly difficult question in education is when these choices should begin. ‘Sensible’ choices are expected – or being imposed – earlier and earlier.

The EBacc performance indicator for schools, and the stress on the need to focus on ‘core subjects’ means 13-year-olds are under pressure to get real. The pressure only gets more severe by 15, when A-levels are chosen in terms of university entry plans, and the greatest perceived risk of all: you are entering a commercial contract that will decide your future. Which subject is most likely to repay your investment into tuition fees?

The problem is that we’re moving too fast. Education is intended to be about discovery, a time to find out what we’re interested in and what we’re good at. The word ‘school’ comes from the Greek word for ‘leisure’ – the space to explore and learn, including learning about ourselves. School and university years are a (potentially one-off) opportunity to experiment, to find passions and get a sense of direction and purpose.

What we have instead is a set of assumptions and conventions about the nature of future jobs markets, where the opportunities will be, and the best ways for young people to prosper. Attitudes to education choices tend to look like just another part of our contemporary nervousness and avoidance of any kind of risk; ferrying children from one planned event to another and relying on health and safety assessments to create a bubble of security. At heart it’s a form of pessimism that is limiting people’s lives and distorting education provision. There has been a decline in the numbers of applications for arts and related degree courses in favour of those that look closer to specific job titles. The danger is that always following practical choices means the potential for higher drop-out rates, and uninspired and resentful students. There have also been surprise falls in the number of part-time and postgraduate students as people of all ages pull back from learning and looking at other choices and options. As a result, the pipeline of talent into the UK’s creative industries is in danger.

A more balanced view of risk and education choices would allow for other realities and new opportunities. In the arts, for example, there continues to be growing opportunities in areas such as fashion, design, computer gaming and media, and a flourishing sector of innovative small businesses. The BRIC countries waking up to the importance of creative arts will mean only more opportunities and growth for the UK if we can focus on creativity.

There is a huge difference between practical choices made on the basis of lived experience and self-knowledge and too early assumptions about what is realistic. The UK needs optimists and risk-takers, not hand-holding, and more young people being steered into what are seen as safe jobs (when they’re probably not). Parents need to think again before they allow protective instincts to take over and we have a generation chasing safe options.

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