If you asked me what I learned at school I could rattle off a whole list of things; Pythagoras Theorem, how to play Three Blind Mice on a recorder, the elements of the Periodic Table, how to dissect a frog and that passing a note in your history mock exam slating your teacher is not a good idea when he is standing right behind you. Have any of these things ever really helped me in the real world though? Absolutely not.
Yonks ago I wrote this letter to my younger self, offering some life advice on an emotional level, but what about the practical life lessons I’ve learnt since I left the school gates which have proved so much more useful than being able to describe my family home in French, German and Spanish? As I sit watching Michael Gove prattle on about making the British education system even more exam focused, I realise how alarmingly uneducated we all seem to be when it comes to practical life skills and how instead of learning every single step of the photosynthesis cycle I wish I’d been taught a little more about the following…
Money Matters: I have spent hours and hours of my adult life huffing and puffing about filing my tax return. Although I sort of know how to do it now, I still don’t really understand why I have to do one at all when I’ve always been an employee and therefore on the PAYE scheme (that’s “Pay As You Earn” for those of you, that like me, didn’t know this until you pestered your companies finance team in the hope they’d complete the form for you – they won’t). The endless form is something I just could not begin to navigate without suffering a minor breakdown. Who, but natural born mathematicians, can understand the calculations, the supporting documents and all those sodding declarations? It seems to me that some people are born knowing what an ISA is and seem to magically know when and how to start a pension plan, along with arranging life assurance the moment they exit the womb. I meanwhile, have no clue. Someone needs to tell youngsters about the perks and downfalls of having a credit card and that by only making the minimum monthly payments, you are essentially making a decision to die in debt – I once spent six months paying off a £65 dress, which was great for MasterCard but terrible for me. I really believe my early 20’s could have been financially much more comfortable had I been taught to budget my income. Who cares about global economic lessons if we aren’t able to manage our own bank accounts? I wish I’d had a lesson in how manage my expenses, savings, fun money and to keep an emergency fund. This wouldn’t have had to be taught as a strict, boring plan, but instead as a life tool, helping us all to get the most out of our money and avoid getting into credit card trauma (I learnt the hard way about debt thanks to my Dad selling my car without telling me, to pay back what I owed, but that’s a story of another time…). These personal finance skills, if taught in the classroom, would be invaluable compared to knowing how to turn on a Bunsen Burner!
Getting Ahead at Work: “Turn up on time, work hard, keep your head down and out of office politics” – these simple guidelines could save Sixth Formers whole terms of so-called “careers advice” and are essentially the key points to success in the early days of any career, regardless of job title, qualifications, experience or contacts. Companies employ people who knuckle down and make life easier for everyone else around them. My teachers were so preoccupied with grades that they failed to give us these three most important pieces of workplace advice. We were also never told how difficult the conversation can be when it comes to asking for a pay rise. We’ve all been there with that sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs, stumbling over words, avoiding eye contact, all under the stifling umbrella of crippling self-doubt when faced with the terrifying prospect of asking our boss for a salary increase. They say that asking for more money is the most feared conversation in the UK, with research suggesting we find the experience so traumatic that most of us would rather call off an intimate relationship than approach our bosses for more money. So how should we go about it and what could we have been taught? Employers really don’t care that you have a mortgage, bills to pay, or a car to maintain – who doesn’t? Your boss needs to hear why your specific work calls for more money, what value-add you are bringing to the firm and why it would cost them significantly if you were to leave. We should have been taught about how to approach these type of conversations at school (I also think we should have been prepped for interviews instead of learning about Joseph’s Dream Coat) so that we are paid what we are worth. To be paid appropriately, I have learnt you must be forensic, dispassionate, methodical, and show clearly how you’ve come to your proposed salary increase figure. Then you can negotiate – hard.
Food Glorious Food: Yes all schools have cooking lessons to a degree, but how many of us could have done with a class on how to make a nutritious meal as opposed to a fruit scone? I was lucky enough that Mama H taught me well and I’ve always enjoyed pottering about in the kitchen, but it amazes me how many people can’t fend for themselves. I am stunned by the number my colleagues and friends who claim they can’t boil an egg and spend huge chunks of their salaries on takeaways as the kitchen is uncharted territory for them. I find the inability to make a simple supper for oneself pathetically unattractive. Yes, a plaited loaf may look very nice (actually my attempt in Year 9 looked horrifically phallic), but it’s really not that useful when you only have two eggs and a lump of cheese in the fridge and don’t know how to make a simple omelette. As a result of this basic survival skill not being taught, an entire generation of young boys and girls are dropping whole food groups because they don’t understand the meaning or possess the skills to have a balanced diet. Two words kids: eating disorders. I know they teach you about the food pyramid and all that jazz, but it would be far better to have a more realistic, in-depth understanding of how each food group is important and how it affects your health and weight. Health is ultimately more useful to you than a concave abdomen so learn to cook that veg, roast a joint and whip up a wholesome feast.
Saying No: As children we are great at saying no to things we don’t want to do, but instead of nurturing this impulse (where appropriate), teachers often scold us out of it, despite the fact that we’ll need the confidence to say “no” throughout life to certain people and situations. “No, I can’t take on any extra work; no I don’t want to see that play; no I won’t lie for you; no I don’t want to have sex with you; no I didn’t orgasm“. No, no, no, no, no! As we turn from children to adults we seem to develop a guilt for giving a negative response to things that are asked of us, but really a firm, clear, polite but definite N-O is one of the greatest life skills we can be taught.
Unwanted Pregnancy: Luckily I’ve never been in this situation myself, but when a friend called me earlier this year sobbing that she’d just peed on a pregnancy test and not had the result she was hoping for, I realised how badly prepared us girls are for these moments. On arriving at her flat with chocolate and wine (well she wasn’t keeping it), my friend sat in stunned silence, whilst I turned to Google to find out how one goes about the abortion process. In soap operas and films when women get pregnant, they have their babies, however unwanted or difficult their circumstances, but in real life, we make mistakes and civilised societies do give us options. On finding a helpline number, I was amazed at the efficiency of the service and speed at which one can get a safe termination. Once paperwork is completed and psychiatric tests done, I’m told the actual abortion is uncomfortable but painless and can be traumatic, you will need go home to rest and there are side effects for several weeks after. I got to this ripe old age barely knowing any of this information which desperately needs to be taught in sex education, as it is important girls know how this works. Although it is an undesirable situation for anyone to be in, we do have an incredibly supportive healthcare system in place for girls in this situation and although abortion should never ever be considered as a form of contraception, we are very fortunate that we have this option in the UK. Girls need to be taught this is available to them if needed and how to go about the process.
Self Defense: At the age of 11 I went to boarding school so basically grew up with a bunch of boys I loved as brothers, and was quickly subjected to brutal lessons in physical self-defense. Wriggling my way out of the crossfire of a group of young boys and their “beats” sessions is a skill I mastered well, but having found myself a few years ago in a more threatening situation when an intruder entered my flat I didn’t really know what to do but run. Whilst the boys spent a term doing judo in P.E, us girls found ourselves doing modern dance, which yes I loved at the time, but I can’t help feeling some knowledge in self defense would serve us all much better than being able to do the MC Hammer hop (I say this, but put that tune on and we all know I’ll be be on one leg with an arm behind my head). All young people should be taught how to punch where vulnerable tissue lies, the power of a jagged key and why it’s important to get the hell out of a scary situation fast.
Death and Illness: Sadly it is a universal truth that no one really knows what to say to others when it comes to death, until they find themselves in the same awful position. As someone who has attended a few funerals, allow me to deliver the lesson I should have got at 12 – you just say, “I am sorry.” It really is that simple, nothing else needs to be said. Do not attempt to identify a silver lining because there really isn’t one. Do not draw comparisons with your dead pet, because no one cares, however much we may love our animals (and I’m goo goo over mine) it is definitely not the same. Assume the bereaved person has needs, even if they aren’t capable of expressing them. By all means, offer to help, but be specific with what you can do. Don’t just put empty offers of “shout if you need anything” out there because at this sad time people can’t think and often don’t know what they need so you should decide for them if you can be of help and if so crack on. Similarly, never respond to someone’s critical illness diagnosis by telling them which friend of a friends, friend almost or actually died from the same condition, it is not helpful. Nor is telling someone who is terminally ill that you once read a magazine article stating that eating some rare birds nest from the depths of the Amazon can cure them. Sometimes there really are no other words than “I am sorry” and that’s ok.
Anyway, there are a few little lessons I wish I’d been taught way back when, but that’s the thing about life, we learn so much of it as we go along, after all, everyday’s a school day.