Failing? Or being failed?

Jenny Carter, 24, London

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Our Education System is failing young people and corroding our society. For every moral, social, economic, issue we face, the problem can be traced back to the way we teach our children.

Young people today are disenfranchised, disengaged, depressed. I loathe to make such a generalisation about my generation, but we can’t dispute hard facts:

- less than half of all 18–24 year olds voted in the 2015 general election [1],
- unemployment levels are three times higher for 16–25 year olds than the rest of the population according to the ONS [2],
- according to the Mental Health Foundation, rates of depression and anxiety amongst teenagers have increased 70% in the last 25 years [3].

It’s a bleak picture; clearly there is something going very wrong somewhere along the line.

Our schools have become exam factories where young people’s interests, talents and ideas are squashed in favour of prescriptive rules about what is ‘of value’ for them to learn, decided by people who were at school themselves decades before we were even born. The world has moved on since then, and the way we educate young people needs to too.

But is it really the responsibility of schools to socialise young people, protect their well being and ensure they engage positively with society?

Of course it is.

To question this underestimates what our schools are capable of, and it is exactly this attitude which prevents our education system from evolving to meet the needs of young people.

Where school should be a leveller, it instead exacerbates existing inequalities by allowing only those with privilege to be really successful.  If you are lucky enough to have grown up with a loving family, a stable living environment, and the time and money to take part in extracurricular hobbies, then perhaps it is difficult to see schools as anything other than somewhere to learn proper grammar and times tables. But for others, school can – and should be – about much more than that.

The next top chef is living undiscovered because learning to cook does not form part of the core curriculum, and the shared kitchen in her temporary accommodation doesn’t exactly lend itself to culinary experimentation.

Is she failing? Or is she being failed?

The boy who aspires to find the cure for cancer is mocked by teachers who tell him he should focus on revising for his exams, not daydreaming about something so far fetched.

Is he failing? Or is he being failed?

And the girl, who despairs as she watches politicians on TV and longs one day to take their place, is constantly in detention for forgetting to do her homework.  She can’t find the words to tell them she is her sick mother’s sole carer, and homework has to take a back seat at the moment.

Is she failing, or is she being failed?

Think of the benefits we could reap if our educational environment allowed these young people to excel instead of suppressing their ambitions. What would it mean for them individually, and for society as a whole?

Good quality education should be a right.

Education that allows young people to realise their aspirations regardless of their circumstances should be a right.

Education which adequately prepares young people for life outside the classroom should be a right.

It is only then that young people will feel inspired to reach further, aim higher, and follow their passions and interests in a way that benefits us all.

So what can we do? First, the curriculum must be overhauled to reflect the world today. It must provide the skills young people need to make a meaningful contribution to their society. It must address the issues that young people face, and will face as adults, without shying away from difficult topics. And it must . change . now.

Second, we need to shift away from academic achievement as a main priority for schools. There should be room for self-expression and self-development, to give young people time and space to learn about themselves and their world in a way that they may not have an opportunity to anywhere else in their lives. We owe it to them, and our society will be the better for it.

Finally, and most importantly, this overhaul needs young people at the forefront of the decision making process – after all, it is our futures on the line, and we have a right to have a say in them.


Jenny is a member of our Young Leaders programme. The Almeida Young Leaders is a scheme giving young people with something vital to say, the tools and platform to do so. Each young leader has been mentored by a writer and director to develop their ideas, structuring a speech and skills in public speaking.