Across Europe, youth unemployment is rising. In Greece it stands at 40%; in Spain, 45%, in the UK, 20%.
Lying behind such statistics are young people struggling, and not just with the economic realities of unemployment but also with an uncomfortable truth.
Over the last 20 or so years, our education policies have focused on education as training for the world of work. The focus has been on attaining qualifications that will enable the student to get a good job. Education has become synonymous with skills training. Behind this model of education is the mantra that is fast being revealed for a lie: work hard, play by the rules, and the kingdom of heaven will be yours - or at least the status and money attending to a good, interesting and well-paid job.
If your education system preaches success and attainment, what do you do when confronted with failure and loss? And, importantly, what do you do when the myth of hard work leading to success is exposed as false?
We need to think again about the importance of considering failure and loss.
Creativity and insight invariably come out of encountering failure. New innovations come to light when things fail to work as we think they should, or when we are prepared to risk things failing in order to try something out. Everyday life teaches us that when something goes wrong, we have to be creative in order to find an alternative.
As we go through life, we continually encounter failure: even if we are not always that good at facing up to our own failings and failures. Some of us deal with this uncomfortable fact of life rather better than others. Failure can be sometimes serious, sometimes not. At some point during a dilemma a spark appears and off we go. And how rewarding it is when we find an answer or a way through!
Real education requires cultivating risk-taking; helping students to try things out that might not actually work. A system that is only interested in achieving high grades will not be able to accommodate the kind of bravery necessary to give something a go, regardless of whether it leads to success or not. The opening up of thoughts and ideas should be encouraged - without fostering such creative thinking an education can be an empty experience.
An entire generation has been sold a myth about the uses of education. The function of education linked only to the world of employment ignores its richer possibilities. Education enables you to think about the nature of your life and what you want to do with it. It should - at its best - act as the gateway to the rest of your life.
In a time of social and economic upheaval, we need a new approach to education that sees it as the sphere for realising what Liverpool University's Panayiota Vassilopoulou calls the three educational virtues: bravery, creativity and patience. When our young people leave school or University and have only a one in five chance of finding a job, perhaps only part-time work being available, wouldn't it be a good idea to develop an education system based on these principles?
It's time for some creative thinking.
At the outset, we should revisit the idea that attaining qualifications is all that matters and all that schools or universities should address. The league table culture encourages a tick box mentality where all that matters are statistics, not the experience of the young people who are being educated and learning about life for themselves. A different kind of qualification regime - perhaps along the lines of the high school certificate - might enable that richer model of what education can achieve to be advanced.
And then we must turn to the scandal of youth and graduate unemployment.
Should we consider a shorter working week so that all school or University leavers are able to gain some employment? Addressing the fact that some have too much work and some too little or none would enable all to have the space, the ability and permission to address the part of their lives that is not taken up with the working day.
Accepting high levels of youth unemployment fails to address the independence and responsibility for their lives that young people yearn for. Shouldn't we be encouraging those things and activities that enrich young people's lives?
At the other end of the spectrum, older people are being expected to work longer. How realistic is this? Imagine someone nearer the age of 70 teaching young primary school children for almost seven hours a day, five days per week. Individuals should be allowed to have time and energy at that stage in their lives where there priorities will, inevitably, have changed: they might, for example, have a caring role at home. And by allowing for retirement, more jobs would be made available for younger people.
Neither of us pretends to be an economist, and we realise that economically a shift of this kind wouldn't be initially easy, but given the rising unemployment figures perhaps we all need to be realistic about the long term future and what is on offer for the medium term. But such realism is not to be equated with denying that things can be different. These difficult times must act as a source for new thinking about education, work and life itself. For these things are interconnected, and, if balanced in the right way, act as the basis for a better kind of life for all.
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