How to prepare young people for the real world

Encouraging young people to think for themselves is of far greater importance than teaching them how to pass exams, says Siobhan McGrath, executive principal at Southbank International School

Whenever I meet prospective parents, I always ask the same question: imagine your child is now 24, what do you want for them? Nearly always the response is that they want them to be happy, confident and to be following their interests – to have passions. They also want them to have strong moral values. In many ways, these are the same things we want for them at school.

What’s become apparent to me is that parents have become far more savvy and acutely aware that how they were educated and prepared for the workplace just doesn’t add up in today’s world, with self-directed learning, finding a balance between home and work, and the ability to collaborate and problem-solve.

National rhetoric continues to centre on knowledge-based learning and academic success based on achieving the highest grades in exams, rather than focusing on creativity, innovation and the skills needed to cope well with life.

The truth is, the UK’s current exam-based curriculum simply doesn’t provide the right foundations for young people starting out in their careers. Whilst exams can be a great leveller for the privileged and the disadvantaged, they are far too dependent on fact regurgitation and short-term learning. Events from the last two years, in which schools have had to implement their own grading criteria for students as a result of the pandemic, have only served to reinforce the irrelevance of exams.

Events from the last two years, in which schools have had to implement their own grading criteria for students as a result of the pandemic, have only served to reinforce the irrelevance of exams

Of far greater importance is to nurture inquiring, independent minds, encouraging young people to think for themselves and to have the courage to take risks, which will in turn build resilience. Young people naturally challenge orthodoxy and should be encouraged to do so; they tell us they want to be taught how to learn, not just what to learn.

Approaches to learning, and the theory of knowledge, ‘how we know what we know’, are explicitly taught in the International Baccalaureate. It’s about fostering the right behavioural traits that will best prepare them for the real world, where you are expected to be independent, self-directed and collaborative.

How do we want our young people to be?

Continued emphasis on academic results and the current debate around the big catch up have pushed aside some of the key themes of a good education: the nurturing of morals and values, which are far too often not explicitly taught and hardly ever mentioned by the Department for Education.

Yet key objectives of any educational system, and included in the attributes mentioned by parents as critical, are to instil a sense of social responsibility, to contribute usefully to society and to behave decently to others.

One of the many privileges of running an international school is the exposure to so many different cultures, viewpoints and beliefs. With students from over 70 different countries, there is an inherent openness to the global world and a readiness to see other points of view – accepting people who may be different from ourselves and gaining a breadth of perspectives and opinions.

As school leaders, it is our job not only to instil an acceptance of diversity but also to celebrate it. Because that is the reality of society, which in truth is not always kind, fair or just. We need to encourage young people to consider what actions they can take to create a more equitable world – whether that be through local grassroots community projects or through larger-scale charitable work.

Raising funds for NHS workers, delivering hygiene products to the homeless and gathering messages of support for the elderly – these are just some of the community initiatives being conducted by students at Southbank, where a focus on community service and giving back is embedded across every age group and every campus.

It is not just up to schools; parents also have a pivotal role to play in fostering an ethos of giving back to others in their children. We need to work together to help nurture inquiring minds, underpinned by a sense of moral obligation to the community. It is only by giving young people the right competencies to act on their values that we will truly prepare them for the real world.

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