I had a conversation recently with an American scientist about the importance of offering young people an insight into the burgeoning field of bioscience. Why? In the States students do not learn about biological science until they reach the equivalent of our sixth form when arguably they have already determined their area of study for Higher Education. And for her this area of science is so important because it addresses global health issues such as malaria and HIV/AIDS – young people should be inspired to pursue a career in this critical area of scientific research.
In pursuit of this aim she and others established the BioQuest Academy 10 years ago to offer an outreach opportunity for students. Situated in Seattle, this not for profit enterprise has provided extraordinary laboratory experience to young people in the States and across the world. Such immersion in cutting edge bioscience has now a proven track record of inspiring young people to study the subject at a higher level. Yet by its very nature this wonderful opportunity is limited to those students able to take advantage of it.
How to offer guidance in schools for a future awash with opportunities – many as yet unknown – is a real challenge in any country. Indeed, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, struggled to address this issue when questioned by the Commons Education Select Committee last month. Having axed Connexions as a guidance provider, there is now no clear framework to support guidance in schools. Yet to be fair, even with Connexions, schools were struggling to connect with the future.
The challenge to offer quality guidance is huge. However, if the focus of a school is inspiring students to aspire aligned with developing the capacity for independent thought, the groundwork is being done. It is interesting to observe that the Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt, believes that the league table, target driven culture developed by the previous government resulted in a lack of aspiration in schools. Schools became so focused on the examination process they arguably lost sight of their broader educational purpose. In such circumstances the metric is everything – you can measure a grade, you can’t measure inspiration.
Yet there are those in the wider world who are keen to open the minds of young people to the possibilities out there. Within our school community we have drawn on the expertise and knowledge of parents, alumni and friends of the school. With our now well-established Inspire Me programme, we offer our students an insight into the lives of individuals at different stages of their career. As with the BioQuest initiative, we know anecdotally that this programme is making a difference. Indeed I should like to take the opportunity to record formally my thanks to Cambridge entrepreneur Sherry Coutu who has created an excellent network of like-minded people tasked with visiting schools to share their experiences. Building on the success of Silicon Valley Comes to UK – certainly transformative in our school – Sherry oversaw the setting up of a database of volunteers all prepared to give generously of their time. @Founders4School is a fantastic resource which I thoroughly recommend.
However, the rub is finding time in a hectic school schedule to offer such guidance. The level of prescription is such that ironically the very reason why young people attend school is lost – their future. Of course offering inspiration is not enough – guidance needs to create the link between aspiration and the learner profile of a student. And effective guidance will come at a cost because individuals rarely fit neatly into boxes.
The debate around education and qualifications is literally academic unless it is linked with the future lives of our young people. Rather than viewing them as potential worker bees contributing to our economy, let’s see them as the individuals they are and seek to inspire them to live a life worth living.