Jayne Dowle: Beating fear is key to education success

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I HAVE four A-Levels and a university degree. yet I have no qualifications for my latest role – wise woman on all matters of higher education. I was the student who left every essay until the very last minute, and blew her grant on posters and wine. However, I do seem to have spent quite a lot of time this summer giving advice to the sons and daughters of my friends, who are either starting sixth-form this week or preparing for university.

I’m very proud to be consulted though, and always happy to help. A young lad I know from football is about to commence four A-levels at the new college in Barnsley. The poor kid has found the last year at school tough and lonely; his friends fell away whilst he buckled down to concentrate on his GCSEs. That’s why his eyes betrayed that mixture of pride and anxiety I found eerily familiar.

I’m not sure how much difference I can make, except that I speak from the heart. My own journey towards becoming a graduate with a decent job still seems to represent a series of happy accidents, a decent amount of luck and a wing and a prayer. It was 30 years ago, but the same anxieties which plagued me – how much will it all cost, how will I fit in, am I really clever enough for university – are still the same concerns which furrow the brows of young people today. Those words “aspiration” and “ambition” are bandied around by politicians. Yet try to make them come alive in a typical school in South Yorkshire and you face a daily battle not to be labelled a geek or a snob. That was true when I was at school and is still true today.

However, if I can help even one teenager feel like they have the world at their feet, I will be pleased to have helped. When I talk to young people – and their parents – I am always amazed at how little school has prepared them for the choices they face. I’m not blaming the teachers for this at all. They have enough on their proverbial plates. When you’re trying to stop one half of the class from fighting with the other half, it’s enough of an achievement to get to the end of the school day.

Somewhere in the middle of this you have the children with the ability to take their studies much further. Yet, too many of them still have no clear idea of how to make this happen and somehow our education system is failing to bring out the best in the next generation. And particularly in Yorkshire, this would seem.

A report by Ofsted found that the education of young people in our region is dogged by “poverty of expectation and poverty of aspiration”. Despite all the reforms to the curriculum and examinations, despite all the investment in new school buildings, Ofsted found that significant rural isolation in North Yorkshire and urban deprivation in the major conurbations around Sheffield and Leeds contributes to limited life chances for those leaving school.

A myriad of reasons can be advanced as to why this is the case; in North Yorkshire scattered communities, a traditional way of life and poor transport links play their part. Further south, the former industrial heartlands are still struggling to redefine themselves, also there are too many children with a poor standard of spoken English, and multi-generational economic poverty which translates into lack of support in the home.

Yet, I would argue that all of these reasons could apply to other locations around Great Britain. Still though, in our region, we seem to lag behind at all levels of education. It’s time we realised that we all have a part to play in changing this state of affairs. As parents, we should educate ourselves about the chances on offer to our offspring. As adults overall, we should not be proud to ask questions if we don’t understand. It’s our job to give our children confidence to take flight.

If we don’t, we risk turning back the clock. We talk about the limited life chances of our young people today. Yet, when I went to sixth-form college all those years ago, we were pretty much all the sons and daughters of parents who had left school at 15. With a few exceptions, we had all been to old-style comprehensives. Many of us were re-sitting maths or science O-levels alongside our A -levels because we’d failed at school. Some of us – me included – didn’t even have a family car. Yet we couldn’t see any reason why we couldn’t go to university, to leave home, find a job and fulfil our own ambition.

In contrast, today’s young people seem so fearful of the world. And fear is the greatest inhibitor of aspiration. If you too can help in any way to dispel this, I urge you to do so.