Communities clean up after the storm

Such were the headlines in the newspapers over the past few days. But I was safely tucked away from it all in Dunedin which was relatively untouched. I was helping out at a Community Forum related to youth and the issues of employment and education. So in a way it was a case of a community cleaning up after a different kind of storm

There is a mood for change emerging in New Zealand. Communities of different kinds are getting together to work through the key community issue as they see it – the needless destruction of a proportion of a generation of young people through unsatisfactory educational outcomes and the subsequent disruption to the traditional pathway in New Zealand that saw young people succeed in education to various levels that at various points led to an exit to a fulfilling future – jobs, higher qualifications, wages that were low but with a prospect of getting higher, and so on.

The generations of my parents and grandparents were born into and lived through times of great pressures and troubles – depression (financial not personal), world wars, Spanish ‘flu, and so on. Our generation (the baby boomers) was born into a time of plenty, of opportunity and of peace. And the gloomy thought occurs that the next generation will not benefit – quite simply the growing numbers of NEETs, of disengaging younger people, of youth who are unemployed and the large numbers who exhibit mental health issues at an age when we would barely have known that such conditions existed, is such that if that growth is not arrested quite quickly the negative elements of society will outweigh the positive gains.

Have the Baby Boomers bombed on this one?

Has the best opportunity to fulfill the great Kiwi Dream, a universal education that offers an appropriate pathway for all to the fullest extent of each and everyone’s potential, been squandered?

Communities are meeting and showing a great willingness to combine expertise and effort across the community to get the young people moving. It is a pleasure for me that I get to go to such gatherings and to lend a hand. An amazing array of people who have the tools and the desire to change the future for the young ones seriously and openly share their hopes, their capabilities to contribute and their commitment to doing what they can.

Somewhat AWOL from these gatherings is the education community. Not entirely absent but to a noticeable extent. It is as if there is still to develop among the education community an awareness that poor educational outcomes are central to the issues that are troubling their communities and into which communities are committing resources and people both of which could be used for things other than attending to the failures of the education system. True, there are some who for reasons beyond the institution that is a school are stalled in their lives but the inescapable fact is that too many would not be where they are today making these demands on the community had their performance and achievement at school been better.

In a nutshell the issues are clustered around the fact that too many young people get themselves into a dark place seemingly without drawing the attention of education institutions. Disengagement is not an event, it is not something that students do to themselves, it is not simply a fact of life. It is a system failure in which a student progressively disconnects from the process of being at school to move into darkening places in which motivation start to decrease, habits change, traditional authority (with a small “a”) chains lose their strength both at home and in school and, perhaps the worst scenario, the engagement that we rely on so much to maintain education transfers to far less but seemingly seductive other activities – substance abuse, drugs, alcohol, youth gangs, petty crime and suchlike for some. For others doing nothing seems a better way to pass the days than continuing in education.

But are they doing nothing? I come across many such disengaged and NEET people and given a choice and below the bravado they would swap where they are for success quite quickly. They want to have a satisfying future which involves work, having money, sustaining a family and so on. But the thought of returning to the kind of institution in which they have so comprehensively failed fills them with dread and doing nothing gains in strength as a desired option. The big message that emerges from the community forums confirms my belief that each and every individual can learn and can succeed when opportunity and process match the individual’s needs and goals. So greater flexibility is called for – there has never been one way of doing things nor is one silver bullet likely to emerge.

There is great energy, skill and willingness out there in the communities – the challenge for education is to match it and work with it.

Weather’s improving as I head north again but blue skies will not in themselves make for a happy fulfilled lives for many. There are dark clouds every day for the dispirited and the disengaged.

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