As many students settle into their first year at university and when the next tranche of teenagers visit institutions across the UK, choosing where they will do their degree, I reflect on the stark difference between my two children and their journeys through the education system.
Our (now) 26-year-old is in his second job as a university lecturer, having completed his PhD in sociology two years ago. A remarkable achievement for someone so young and testimony to his drive and focus. Our 24-year-old has just begun a further education course, exploring the world of sports journalism, six years after completing his A levels and having never been to university. It is an extraordinarily brave decision for someone who is not as academic - but just as bright - as his older brother.
We know that people mature and 'grow' at different ages and for myself, leaving school at 17 was a sensible move. At that age I was not academic at all, suffering in a state system with too many students and not enough focus. Six years later I returned to education to complete my A levels and gain the journalism qualification that helped launch my career. I have no doubt that at 18 I would not have been able to complete the courses to anywhere near the same standard.
For me it was the right decision to return to education a few years later. Since Tony Blair set targets for the proportion of students going to university, the secondary school system has become more rigid in the process that teenagers go through. Schools are driven towards getting as many students into the university system as possible, meaning that many 17/18 year olds feel they have no choice but to go straight to higher education.
For many, taking a few years break from 'the system' would be hugely beneficial, but the guidance and advice for this is sadly lacking at schools - as they feel the pressure to keep as many teenagers as possible in education. I'm not talking about taking the cliche year out for travel etc but maybe a 3/4/5 year break to grow up and discover the world in an adult sense. From the age of 4 now, children are locked into the routine and protection of school. Is it any surprise that many are pretty bored of education by the time they're 18?
As a lecturer I have seen many students across different institutions that are evidently not ready for taking on a degree. Instead they may well have benefited from working for a few years before returning to education. By then they will probably have a better idea what they want to do for a career and will be more able to invest properly in the degree to gain more from the experience.
If more students felt able to do this - knowing there is no rush to go into higher education - universities would benefit too. Mature students tend to show more responsibility and are more diligent. Bringing life skills to the course would also be valuable. You would also have time to earn some money to pay towards the course, or make contacts in prospective industries connected to a future degree.
As with all 'systems' there is a lack of flexibility for the individual. That should come from help and advice in their mid teens - reducing the pressure through the exam phase - rather than increasing it. In our own case, our eldest raced through to his PhD - but he is an exception not the rule. Our younger son was left feeling undervalued and second rate by his school. As parents too, we were aware of a stigma that not going to university might leave on him. Perhaps we should have encouraged and protected him better. Years later, he is looking to develop when he feels right to.