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Young people need to be more than the sum of their CVs

December 11 2016, The Sunday Times​ Education Blog

This week saw the publication of the latest Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking of aspects of the educational provision of 72 countries or cities. The dominance of those tables — notably in maths and science — by the Asian “tiger” nations has led to the usual bout of anxious soul-searching in the UK, so it’s a good moment to reflect on what’s good about British education, and specifically what a rounded education does to prepare the leaders of the future.

October’s annual event organised by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) celebrated creative schools, and the session that most captured my attention was a talk from three young female entrepreneurs. All implied that they had made their way in the world of work in spite of their schools’ curriculums rather than because of them. This does not surprise me, for entrepreneurship is far more an attitude of mind than a set of teachable skills. However, great teachers had played a part in shaping these young people.

While it is wrong-headed to attempt to teach entrepreneurship, every subject can help; the speakers were fiercely articulate and understood the importance of a compelling narrative and of self-critical reflection. They had been blessed by good English and history teachers.

My contention is that, in addition to English and the humanities, languages, IT and the creative arts will also be important to tomorrow’s young leaders and entrepreneurs. We have to stop trying to draw up a league table of useful or “hard” subjects. It’s an understanding of the importance of different ways of seeing the world and approaching problems that’s valuable.

A bright future lies with the TCKs (third culture kids): those of mixed ethnicities at ease in many dispensations, able to negotiate in the language of the country where they are working, at home in a world in which people will have two or more careers conducted across multiple continents.

If languages are to be one key service subject for the entrepreneur, then another will be IT. Used wisely, boldly and innovatively, IT must become the servant of good learning in every subject area. Beyond addressing ethical questions such as civil liberties in the internet age, and courses on keeping property and identity safe online, I want to see modules on digital entrepreneurship and on how the humanities can employ quantitative online research.

The creative arts encourage risk-taking and a belief that there is not always a safe, right answer

Obituaries of the teacher in the digital age are premature. Teachers, as facilitators of debate rather than simply the purveyors of knowledge, will encourage pupils to play to their aptitudes and to take their understanding of as many and as broad a range of subjects as possible, as deep as possible.

In nurturing entrepreneurs, the role of the creative arts cannot be overstated. They encourage risk-taking and a belief that there is not always a safe, right answer, but that it’s worth having a go.

We must overcome the “two cultures” mentality: the fallacy that science and maths are good and hard, and the arts and humanities nebulous and soft. Great science is creative; great art demands logic. We need to recall the concept of Scientia as understood by Leonardo and Galileo.

Children raised to take risks, cope with failure and bounce back from disappointment are on their way to becoming “social entrepreneurs”; whether their skills will be deployed in business, science, or the creative arts is the moot point.

To encourage entrepreneurship in schools is to celebrate pupils’ attempts to answer the difficult questions, believing this has a knock-on for those embarking on careers in every profession; the truth is that requisite skills for, say, engineers and creative artists are not dissimilar.

Children learn best when they do not realise they are learning: by playing games, leading orchestras, performing, debating — apparently for fun. For teachers to prescribe all that can be learned from all these things is to remove the joy of doing something for its own sake.

Challenges such as Young Enterprise, the Times Bank of England Target 2.0 and the IFS Investor Challenge also encourage entrepreneurial behaviour, as can engagement in competitions that require pupils to work collaboratively on fund-raising projects, such as the Roar Challenge, the Wings of Hope Achievement Awards, and projects supported by the Mark Evison Foundation and Mosaic.

How much does our present political crisis owe to the failure of the hyper-educated metropolitan elite to understand the world beyond its immediate orbit? How much is it the fault of generations of politicians educated out of their innate creativity, flexibility or ability to empathise by grade-focused schools and complacent universities?

But now the good news. Employers are shifting from an obsession with exam results to looking for “character”. Young people in the 2020s will need to be more than the sum of their CVs. It is not whether you have achieved a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award, but what you learned from undertaking it and what you went on to do next. We are seeing the death of the passive CV.

I’m very proud of my former pupils who have taken roads less travelled, whether that’s going on an art foundation course or taking up a place at drama school, or applying to a Dutch university or undertaking an apprenticeship. Or daring to pull out of university to launch a business.

Story of the year is that of a young entrepreneur called Phoebe, one of those who spoke at HMC’s conference, who pulled out of her dull degree to establish herself as Savile Row’s first bespoke tailor of suits for women and realising a dream conceived, under the influence of an inspirational textiles teacher, at the age of 15.

No, you can’t teach entrepreneurship, but a talented teacher can begin encouraging a lifelong passion for a subject, which might just become a vocation, by their own deep love of it. That explains why teaching is such a rewarding profession, how the entrepreneurial bug can be caught — and why Pisa tables only tell half the story, if that. This isn’t a call for complacency, but it is a corrective to the “We’re doomed!” mentality that is the greatest danger to the progress of our schools and universities.

Dr Joe Spence

The Sunday Times Education Blog
Young people need to be more than the sum of their CVs