Imagination is not usually seen as the best foundation for policy-making. For that, we look to facts and stats. In education, though, things are – or should be – different.
Why? Because we are preparing our youngest school pupils for adult life and the workscape as it will be in the mid-2030s. For this, the facts and stats of the past 16 years will not suffice to inform our thinking, just as the facts and stats of the turn-of-the-millennium – pre-iPhone, pre-Facebook – did not help us greatly to shape the education of today’s 18 year olds.
For decades, education has been playing catch-up with technological change, with classroom practice and social conduct adapting ‘on the hoof’ to the new possibilities of communication, information gathering and disclosure presented by innovations and inventions emanating from commercial enterprises with a completely different agenda from that of schools. For more than a generation, our education system has been enmeshed in a struggle to prove itself against national (and international) standards of individual employability competencies, in an exercise in which countless incommensurable variables are smoothed into invisibility in a bland background picture.
The result has been an exodus from the teaching profession on an unparalleled scale as the joy of the work has been squeezed out of existence. Meanwhile, the dizzying possibilities for our own students of internationalism – a truly globalised higher education and employment market, for example – seem scarcely to register in a society in which the levers of social mobility seem to be rusted in a locked-shut position and the prevailing public discourse is stuck in the well-worn groove of blaming the independent-state divide.
Sticking narrowly to the facts and stats of economic, social and technological change has brought us hither. Continuing to do so offers a depressing outlook for the journey onwards. What, then, can inspire teachers and young people to resume the challenges of education at the opening of a new year – 2019?
For that, we need imagination.
Imagine, for example, a world in which the gender pay gap has already been bridged and sexual harassment has become a thing of the past in the workplace culture.
How can we get there?
Now let’s imagine a girls’ school whose approach to Student Guidance revolves around preparing its students to speak out and to act to build the society that they want and deserve rather than merely preparing them to cope with the obstacles they will encounter.
If this sounds powerful, it is.
But what does it look like in practice?
Let’s focus on one concrete example to exemplify the approach. This was our #Now’sTheTime Conference, run for our Year 12 students in November. The day was bookended by individual stories; beginning with Carole Stronach, Director of Global Real Estate for Avon, who spoke about her quest for personal success and fulfilment, and the rewards and sacrifices made along the way and finishing with Sally Kettle, High School Alumna and professional adventurer, drawing on her insights about the same issues from a generation younger. The filling in the sandwich consisted of sessions designed to tackle head-on the key issues facing young women as they prepare to enter a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, both professionally and socially, where, the stats tell us, a discouraging outlook of diminishing self-efficacy, narrowing expectations and plateauing professional horizons beckons. A plenary from Dr Melanie Crofts, Senior Lecturer at De Montfort University’s Law Faculty, gave girls the low-down on the law of consent while experts in their fields ran workshops on vocal efficacy, bystander intervention, practical self-defence and building a vision of equality, which will stand the test of confrontation with real-life experiences.
Sharing the day with a group of Year 12 girls from Weston Favell Academy meant that we could hear a range of stories and build solidarity with peers – while also practising networking skills over lunch! And, invaluable though the day was in itself, we knew that we could reinforce key messages and practise building self-efficacy through follow-up events in school and through the Girls’ Day School Trust’s unique CareerStart events and mentoring programmes.
Our Sixth Form students believe wholeheartedly that Now’s The Time for them – the time for them to enter an employment market in which gender equality is a lived reality and for them to flourish in workplaces where sexual harassment no longer needs to be on anyone’s agenda. Now’s The Time for them to take an active part in society – feeling free to express their views, taking for granted the fear-free enjoyment of public spaces, reclaiming the night from violence and intimidation, refusing to be a frightened bystander.
They are ready and eager to make it a reality for themselves and, with a little imagination and large dose of belief – in them and in ourselves – we can help to make sure it happens. Now’s the time.