Equipping Boys for the 21st Century
by Henry Morgan, Director of the Other Half and Maths Teacher

I have long been a believer that education is the greatest gift that we can bestow upon the next generation. Ever since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 the importance of what exactly is taught has been a subject of debate. There are contrasting views about the importance of different subjects to the country and its economy – and a growing focus on the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

However, a recent paper from the British Academy suggests that the prospects for those with ASSH degrees (Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) are better than many might have you believe. The ‘survival skills for 21st Century Life’ quoted are: critical thinking and problem-solving; collaboration and leadership; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analysing information; curiosity and imagination. These skills, the paper argues, are those developed by students of ASSH subjects, and equip them to embark on an impressive range of careers that many might assume were the preserve of those who had studied STEM subjects at university. Historians may be good at remembering dates or writing essays at 3am before a 10am tutorial, but it is because they are able to analyse large amounts of information and present it in a clear and compelling argument that they can be useful in a wide variety of settings.

Very few employers actually ask for specific skills related to a subject taught at school. As a mathematician, I would love to think that an understanding of the beauty of De Moivre’s theorem was critical to the 21st century economy, but in my heart I know it isn’t true. As a teacher of mathematics I really encourage students to think and structure a logical argument – the actual theorems they may learn along the way are largely incidental.

I have been impressed in recent weeks by the way in which boys have been keen to engage with activities beyond the traditional curriculum: from the enthusiasm with which many of my fifth form tutor group have taken up the challenge of an open-ended essay competition, to some of the excellent work done by students in the Other Half. The Other Half is an integral part of the Abingdon education: it gives boys the chance to explore new and interesting things for their own sake; to find hobbies and passions that will stay with them long after they leave school, enriching their lives beyond work; it gives them the chance to learn many of the life skills that they won’t necessarily pick up in a classroom.

Education is a lot more subtle and complicated than it is often made out to be by those who seek to reduce it to a short list of exam grades. We learn about more than just our academic subjects at school: the qualities most looked for by employers are those nurtured in an inquiring and sometimes playful environment. It is in the act of learning by doing that young people can develop what are sometimes referred to as ‘soft skills’. At Abingdon we are firm believers that education does not stop at the classroom threshold. Boys are not just encouraged but are required to find activities beyond the narrow curricula that can be found on the websites of exam boards. As Director of the Other Half it is my great pleasure to be able to see boys working outside lessons with passion and determination: to see them learn how to deal with others; to develop skills of leadership and problem-solving. These are the skills that they learn by actively doing, rather than being taught – and the lessons are all the more valuable for it.

Read the British Academy Report:
Qualified for the Future: Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills

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