‘Stop moving the goalposts and listen to the students’ - young people’s message to education chiefs

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Many people have a view on what we need to do to improve education for our young people - and a great many people are more than happy to get on a soapbox about it.

Parents will give their views, along with governors and teachers themselves - rightly so.

Everybody seems to have an opinion on how to improve grades, how to make youngsters better people, how to give them the prospect of better and more productive lives.

Politicians are also not shy at wading into the education debate - how we need to go ‘back to basics’, or focus on the ‘three Rs’, have more coursework, have less coursework, and generally shift the goalposts with every change of Government.

Teachers complain that they are never consulted when these ‘shifts’ take place. They are simply given the new set of specifications and told to get on with it.

But if teachers feel out of the loop in the modern day schools system, what about the students?

Nobody ever asks young people about the challenges that our education system throws at them . . . so we did!

I was invited to go to Shirebrook Academy to meet with a group of young people, currently ‘going through the mill’, who have agreed to give me some of their valuable time to discuss school life and the pressures and demands of being a young person in the state education system in 2016.

One word comes up very quickly - stress.

This takes me by surprise a bit, but not academy principal Mark Cottingham.

Stress is something you hear about a lot these days, he tells me. It’s something new that students have to deal with and teachers have to manage.

Alysia Middleton is the first of the group to bring it up . . . stress.

The 15-year-old tells me that she is committed to doing well at school, and puts in the hours in her own time to ensure she is where she needs to be.

But she is also a gifted trampolinist, and has to balance commitment to her studies with a passion for her sport.

“If I’ve got exams coming up then I know that I have got to spend a lot of time at home studying and revising, but I also need a break,” she says.

“So I will allow myself a couple of nights off to concentrate on my sport, because it helps with stress.

“Stress is a real problem - there is a lot of pressure on young people. In year ten you are already having to think about what you want to do at college, whether you should do A-levels or something else, and you have to really start thinking about what you want to do with your life.

“I know that if I get behind in my school work, and I really try to stay on top of school and sport, it is the sport that I’ll have to miss out on.”

Adam Stacey, 16, is in year 11 and has GCSEs around the corner.

He wants to be a doctor and tells me that too much focus is placed on exam results, and that the education system - from school through to university - needs to look beyond grades and league tables.

“If you want to go to medical school then the grades to get in are crazy,” he says.

“You are going to need Grade As in Chemistry and Biology, and it seems like that is all anyone cares about.

“But young people have a lot more about them than what grades they get in their exams.

“Somebody could be a brilliant people person, which would give them a really good bedside manner and be able to deal with patients really well, only you can’t prove that with exams.”

Emma Lynch, 12, and Ben Madelay, 11, are relatively new to Shirebrook Academy, only joining the school in September.

They tell me they both benefited from a summer school run for new students at Shirebrook, which helps them settle in, make friends and get an introduction to some of the subjects they are going to be studying.

Although sadly, the Government has now cut the funding for the summer school, so Emma and Ben will be the last students to benefit from it.

“I used to think going to school was a chore before I came here,” Emma says.

“But there are lots more subjects to study and the teachers make the lessons really interesting.

“I was a bit worried before I got here because you have to be really prepared, but it’s not as bad as you think.”

Ben tells me that he thinks too many exams just add to the stress that young people face in school. He also thinks that the education system needs to give students the chance to succeed.

“Some people I know have fallen behind with their lessons, but something may have happened, like they’ve fallen in with the wrong crowd,” he says. “These people could have a lot of talent and they should get another chance.”

To complicate matters the young people who have joined me - aged between 11 and 16 - are working under three different education structures, caused by change after change in Government policy in recent years.

The very youngest will be facing the new exam-focused syllabus, which has effectively done away with course work. This impacts most on Tom Watkins, 14, Ella-Louise Sykes, Georgia Brindle and Conor Davis, all 13, who will be taking their options later this year and beginning a much more academic-based curriculum.

“I’m a very persistent person,” says Georgia. “I don’t give up on things but if I don’t understand something it really frustrates me.

“I’m quite good at project work but I like getting on with it on my own, I don’t like working in groups.

“So for me, the most important thing is that we are given lots of different ways to learn, because one way doesn’t suit everybody.”

Pictured: Shirebrook Academy students, from left, Alysia Middleton, Ben Madelay, Emma Lynch, Georgia Brindle, Tom Watkins, Conor Davis, Adam Stacey and Ella-Louise Sykes.