3 Things I’ve Learned from British Secondary Education

I’ve just realized it is almost February, my last month of school visits and interviews in secondary schools here in England, so it’s time for me to reflect on the big lessons I have learned. I’ve seen plenty of trends in British education that I hope the US never tries to follow – and I may write about some of those soon – but there are at least a few ideas that I hope I can take back with me to my classroom in Tennessee and share with others in the US to make a difference in the way we serve our older high school students.

1. Teenagers are young people – not kids: No matter who I am listening to here in England, be it a Member of Parliament in a speech, a professor in a lecture, a teacher in one of my interviews, or a stranger I talk with casually on the bus, I never hear the word “child” or “kid” used to refer to someone over the age of sixteen. This is more than the difference between calling the snack in my bag “crisps” instead of “chips”. It’s an indicator of a different attitude toward teens. The British recognize the very obvious change in development that occurs after puberty, marking a person’s transition from child to young adult. How have we missed this at home?

It’s not just that we call our high school students “kids.” It’s that schools in the US are expected to know where every student is at every moment, and are charged with babysitting as seriously as teaching. Students are watched over so closely they are never able to make mistakes. They are told where to be and what to do for every minute of the school day, and beyond. Even the best behaved and hardest working students approach each school day with anxiety that they will make some inadvertent gaff that will lead to rebuke or punishment. This establishes a climate of fear and mistrust that interferes with learning.

My sixteen year-old daughter marvelled at the difference when we arrived. Her schedule includes free periods where she can go to the “common room”, a place where 16 – 19 year olds can relax and call their own. She can sign out when she has a free period and go into town for lunch, or go home if she is finished for the day. If a teacher is out of school due to illness or a meeting, no substitute teacher is brought in to babysit the young adults unless the absence will be an extended one. Instead, class is cancelled and assignments are posted on the website or left with another teacher for students to pick up.

This is as true in my daughter’s sixth form science specialist school as it is in vocational education schools and in special programs for high-need students. Sure, teachers and administrators complain that students don’t always do the work that is left and don’t use their free time wisely, but students are given the opportunity to fail, so that they can learn the consequences at an early age, when there are still teachers and parents to guide them to learn from those mistakes.

The flip side of the opportunity to fail is the opportunity to flourish. I am thrilled to see how often my daughter uses her free periods to study with friends in the library or meet to work on projects, and despite general public opinion that vocational students are aimless slackers, I see lots of students in vocational settings working independently on projects every time I visit.

2. The classroom isn’t the best learning setting for every young person: This is another of those statements that I have heard and read over and over here in England, but rarely remember hearing in the US, especially from policy makers.

Some students learn better in a practical work setting, like an apprenticeship or a job. The UK government is raising the age of compulsory education to 18, but students can meet this requirement through a job with training, an apprenticeship, or vocational training with an emphasis on work-based learning. And learning in practical settings doesn’t just apply to students with lower-level abilities or those pursuing semi-skilled work. Many educators and policy makers argue that practical vocations like engineering, healthcare, and business can be taught more effectively in applied settings.

The US one-size-fits-all education isn’t working for many students. In a nation of people who value individualism the way that we do, we should be able to see the benefits of diverse pathways of learning. We have no idea what the world will be like for the next generation, so we need people who can think and work in many different ways.  If we all have a common education, where will we find innovation?

3.  Career guidance matters: I think most English educators would be shocked to hear that their career guidance is an inspiration to me. There is a general uproar about the sorry state of career guidance here in the UK. Funding for guidance agencies has been cut in recent years and it is now the schools’ job to provide impartial career advice, which many feel unprepared and underfunded to do. But all the settings I’ve visited take this issue very seriously and either contract services to a Information and Guidance (IAG) Agency or hire their own specialist in the area.

School administrators readily talk about their responsibility to guide students into meaningful careers, and many are knowledgeable about students’ potential career pathways at a level educators don’t touch in the US. One school that I visit has three full career days a year, with career guidance activities tailored for each year group.  On top of that, students in the critical decision-making years attend community career fairs and have one-to-one career guidance meetings with IAG specialists. The staff of this same school spent part of a recent professional development day brainstorming all their personal friends and relatives in different local jobs, so that they could compile a list of potential community mentors to connect with students who have expressed interest in a one of those vocational areas.

In my UK interviews, students are able to talk about career paths and options far beyond the level of any of the students I have ever taught in the US. When I first arrived, I had so much trouble getting a basic handle on the complicated and ever-changing array of services and qualifications here in the UK that I thought the first few students who explained the system to me must be some kind of education policy savants. Try asking an American senior why they are enrolled in the courses on their schedule and into what types of jobs these courses will lead.

But after all, they are just kids – so who can blame them if they don’t know where they are headed.

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