Scientist’s warning over school choices

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Asking teenagers to make important decisions about exams and GCSE subject choices at age 14 is placing “a lot of responsibility” on youngsters whose brains are not yet fully developed, according to a leading scientist.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London (UCL), suggested that adult expectations are being put on young people to make decisions about their futures at a certain stage of their education, when their opinions and preferences are still likely to change over time.

Under the current system, teenagers are asked to choose which subjects they want to take at GCSE when they are in Year 9 – usually aged 13 or 14.

Speaking at a science conference in London, which was examining the issues, Prof Blakemore said: “I don’t think we should be making any kinds of choices at age 14, or at least we shouldn’t be forcing children to make choices at age 14.”

In the last 15 or 20 years, new developments and technologies have meant that scientists now have the ability to scan the living brain and track changes in its structure and function.

That research has changed the way human brain development is viewed, she argued.

“We now know that the vast majority of the brain undergoes very protracted development throughout childhood, but also throughout adolescence and into the 20s, 30s, even the 40s in some cases.”

One key region – the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in abilities such as decision making, planning, empathy and self-awareness, continues developing throughout the first three decades of life, Prof Blakemore said.

“If you think back about what you were like age 14, I’m thinking about your music preferences, your clothes preferences, or even maybe your moral or political beliefs, I would bet for most people they change quite a lot.

“And that’s true not for just your fashion tastes, but it certainly can be true for any kinds of preferences.”