The Way We Live Now

QualificationI came out of the Old Street Tube on my way to a meeting when I was stopped by a young girl asking for money. Something in the look of despair in her eyes made me stop.  ‘I’ve only got a fiver.  Have you got a couple of quid change?’  She had and handed it over.  So, curious, I asked her what brought her to pan-handling outside a tube station in London.

Over two minutes I got the story. She was 21 and had left home because her mother was impossible in some unspecified way.  Her sister was in care and her brother had run off.  So she, — Annie was her name – had got on a train without a ticket and fled to London a week ago.  Since then she had been trying to get a job doing anything and had been living in a grave yard at night.  The problem was that without a residence Annie could not get a job very easily and nor could she get any benefits to enable her to get somewhere to live.

The people at a London Job Centre had told Annie that because she was homeless she was deemed to have no living costs so therefore was not entitled to any payments.  It was a classic Catch 22.  She now was trying to raise £22-50 to buy a week’s accommodation in a London shelter.  It didn’t seem a lot of money.

‘What can you do?’ I asked.  She replied that she could do horse training and riding although we both agreed there wasn’t a lot of demand for that in London. Annie was prepared to do any menial job and GCSEs I asked?  Yes eight all A*-Cs but she couldn’t stay in school because of her family circumstances.

After all this I gave her some money.  Maybe she was not what she seemed and I had been conned.  But she had seemed genuine and not an addict.  It was I reflected the face of England in 2013 where nearly a million 16 to 24 year olds are unemployed.  Many of them are doubtless complex cases like Annie’s.  And like Annie they have qualifications and want to work.  Yet either there are no jobs or where there are we prefer to make their lives difficult by withholding small amounts of money that would actually help them gain work.

More significantly Annie’s case speaks to the broader shape of the educational landscape.  How does it prepare young people for their complex lives?  A focus on skills of self-management and grit would help as would the possibility of job creation for the young in order that they might experience work and not end up on the streets.  More generally is it not time to reassess our Victorian attitudes to schooling?  What we teach should reflect the realities of modern life.  Instead we are still hanging on to notional subjects that have vastly changed since Victorian times.  Where are the new subjects reflecting areas of research at university?  Only computer science has made it onto the curriculum in recent years, whilst practical vocational subjects have been elbowed out as being too easy.  Yet for many thousands of our students these areas of study relate directly to work.  Once again the academic has triumphed in England over the vocational.

Why not have a curriculum divided into units or credits that could be earned and might reflect individual student interest and choice?  Out would go the terminal assessment and in would come the need for a number of credits to graduate from high school at the age of eighteen.  Those seeking to go to university might study advanced courses in their area of interest and undertake additional examinations and course work.

Within this model we would see English schools begin to shift away from the factory model of production as at present and move towards greater individualisation and choice.  It would see a thousand flowers bloom.  But perhaps too much for today’s politicians whatever their persuasion.

Whether such a model might have helped Annie is a moot point given the complexities of her home situation, but it might have provided a richer set of skills on which to build.

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