A year ago to the day, adventurer Bear Grylls was addressing the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. He said he wished that his school had given him better preparation for life’s practical skills – like how to eat well and keep fit. He also mentioned that he never learned anything about leadership and communications – nor about business, citizenship or the tax and legal systems.
His comments at the time produced quite an outcry. This was Bear Grylls! Chief Scout. Fearless explorer, castaway, survivalist, eater of unspeakable bits of animals and leader of hopeless people on reality TV shows.
Bear may not have been taught how to fill in his tax return or run a business. But then he probably wasn’t taught how to rehydrate himself rectally using a length of rubber hose and an empty Ribena bottle – a life-saving skill if ever there was one.
The real noise was the fact that the school that didn’t teach him life’s basics was Eton College. The independent school that, among other accolades, has produced 19 out of the previous 54 prime ministers. Most commentators took the somewhat snide view that anyone going to Eton probably wouldn’t have to bother too much with the sort of everyday inconvenient, but essential aspects of being a citizen.
Besides the opportunity for parody of the very privileged Grylls, he does raise a serious point; schools generally have a poor record of preparing people for the boring but important aspects of living in today’s society.
The current obesity epidemic is a case in point. With over 1 million final year primary school pupils now dangerously overweight, is there a better place than school to teach kids about their diet and health – and incorporate it into their curriculum?
Our relationship with money is shrouded by negative messages. This comes from all over – the media, personal experiences, our communities, religion, family messages and our own personalities
Money management is another area. A recent survey reveals 6m Britons fear never being debt-free with 25% struggling to make ends meet and 62% worried about personal debt levels. How on earth are people supposed to resist the allure of an easy £2,000 loan any more than they can a 2,000 calorie bucket of chicken delivered to their door? It would be a very bad idea would to demonise borrowing money or ordering a takeaway. The answer surely must be that people should be able to make an informed decision about their choice of finance or food. And school, in which citizenship is actually on the curriculum, seems to be a sensible place to start helping people help themselves.
There’s another aspect to money management to be considered, too. Namely, the stark difference between men and women about how money is perceived and discussed. Catherine Morgan, founder of the The Money Panel says that for many women, “just the conversation of money is scary”. “Our relationship with money is shrouded by negative messages. This comes from all over – the media, personal experiences, our communities, religion, family messages and our own personalities. An astonishing 4 out of 5 women say that they avoid talking about money because they feel it is too uncomfortable.” She calls this situation a money confidence gap
Ann Boden, founder and CEO of Starling Bank agrees. “Men are taught the benefits of blockchain and cryptocurrency. Women are told to give up coffee so they can buy a pair of Louboutins” she says. Starling Bank’s aim is to make the issue of money more equitable between men and women.
So it seems that two inescapable areas of life – health and money – are not very high on the agenda in the vast majority of schools, irrespective of whether they are private or state.
It should not be a surprise that alternatives to university don’t get the priority that they deserve, either. Latest official data show that in the first quarter of the current academic year the number of new apprenticeships dived to 114,000 from 155,000 in the same period of the previous year. While universities struggle with striking teachers, a new rating system, devalued degrees and a smaller pool of people to fill their courses, shouldn’t there be more emphasis in schools about the alternatives? Or will schools just leave their students to head off into the sunset to fend for themselves? Survival of the fittest perhaps – the thing is, we can’t all be like Bear Grylls.