Coronavirus is no match for creative careers guidance

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Article first published by Tariq Sadiq,  on LinkedIn 26 March, 2020

The closure of schools and the cancellation of exams in response to the Coronavirus pandemic has added to the pall of uncertainty that has descended across the nation. What seemed just a few weeks ago to be a clear, well-trodden, and predictable path to a definable future for young people has been cast to the four winds as part of the unprecedented global response to something that we only imagined occurred in movies.  The apocalypse is not quite upon us, but many young people might feel like the sky has already fallen in. 

Although the current emergency is frightening and disorienting, it was not entirely unpredictable. For example, CIA briefings to the President of the United States annually warned of just such a catastrophic outbreak and social media is highlighting how programmes like The Simpsons or even games like World of Warcraft ‘foresaw’ the whole thing; if only we’d been prescient enough to act on the ‘warnings’. So maybe we’re overplaying the ‘uncertainty principle’, if I may borrow the phrase from Heisenberg (Werner, the real German scientist not Walter, the fictional American schoolteacher). It seems that we’re not all that bad at predicting the ‘unpredictable’. What we need more of is the ability to understand the threats and opportunities that the future will throw at us and how we might respond. That, I think, will take great leaps of imagination.  

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing then that exams have been cancelled. They’re a useful but entirely flawed measure of ability. They fail to take account of the multiple and complex layers of intelligence that make up all human beings, only one of which is academic ability. We know many examples of people who were terrible at school, born troublemakers, but went on to become highly creative and successful despite their lack of scholarly achievement. Exams are just a convenient method for ‘grown-ups’ to measure and categorise people so they can organise stuff and figure out who’s going to be good at doing what job; we almost never get it absolutely right.   

What matters is not what you know and being able to reproduce it under exam conditions, but how you think. In the 21st Century the power of your creativity and your imagination is the key to the future.  In fact, this is nothing new. Some of our greatest achievements as human beings came from great leaps of imagination, counter-intuitive thinking, and fearless refusal to accept long-held orthodoxies.  Cambridge is full of people like that.  So it seems odd then that we insist on putting children through the strait-jacket of a rigid and narrow curriculum which forces them to be either arty or 'science-y', academic or vocational. We’re more complicated than that, people! 

By all means, show children the wonders of science and technology (we do that very well here at Form the Future through our leading Cambridge Launchpad programme) but it’s just one important dimension of knowledge. STEM is nothing without artistry, imagination, and the ability to tell compelling stories – something like the iPhone is a combination of brilliant technology, beguilingly creative design, and an instinctive understanding of human behaviour. It works on our emotions not our rational brain otherwise we wouldn’t shell out hundreds of pounds for something that we managed quite well without for several millennia.  

How can young people navigate their way through this jungle of uncertainty and opportunity? What is important and what many children still don’t get in schools, is high quality education, information, advice and guidance about careers. Those of us of advancing years can recall horror stories of appallingly bad careers advice, if we ever got any at all. Teachers are more clued up now and Government expects schools to provide employer encounters (i.e. contact with working professionals and visits to workplaces) but in many schools, resources are stretched very thin and are barely enough to cover basic education let alone ‘extras’ like careers advice. Expertise is also lacking – why should we expect teachers to also be careers guidance professionals?   

There is too much pressure on schools and teachers which is where not-for-profit organisations like Form the Future step in to fill the gap, but only if we can find the funding to make the service free or low-cost to schools. A key part of this is one-to-one careers guidance which helps a child to understand his or her strengths, abilities and motivations – crucial to helping them realise their potential. This again is a major dissonance: at a time when children and young people need all the help they can get to find their way through an uncertain future, there is no guaranteed stream of funding to ensure that it gets delivered.   

Our future depends on sparking the potential of our young people. It is this that will help us survive and thrive whatever nature throws at us, whether that be pandemics or global warming (the two are probably linked).  The only exam they really need to pass is knowing themselves, unleashing their creative powers and stoking their desire to achieve great things. Let’s help them do that, for our own sakes. 

By Tariq Sadiq,
Fundraising and Development Manager, Form the Future CIC
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