Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Promoting the Personal Development of Young People: Why Personal Agency is important in Families and Education – Euan Mackie

Having a revitalised appreciation of education, in its fullest sense, is essential for the promotion of young people’s personal development. This should include the nurturing of personal agency.

The review of the role of Scotland’s national educational institutions is important in clarifying the direction of education for Scotland’s young people and those who support it. As the OECD has recognised, we have an assessment overload. This percolates the whole system. We are so used to assessment criteria in everything, we believe it is synonymous with our notion of ‘education’, as the outcomes of ‘didactic schooling’. However those outside our system in non-formal education see it as a systemic neurosis. Rather than seeing the Four Capacities 1 and the UN Rights of the Child 2 as being the vision which should dictate how we support young people, everyone is bogged down in meeting protocols and guidance in all manner of things. This is hierarchical control and the antithesis of promoting personal agency.

We need to think carefully, as parents, teachers, educators, and those in the health sectors how we respond to the challenge of strengthening young people’s well-being and, of course, of our own development!  Through extensive personal experience, and using psychological research, I suggest there are natural approaches for promoting better personal development for young people, in families and in institutions. The outcomes are about nurturing a growth in ‘personal agency’ as the OECD define: an ability and will to positively influence our own lives and those around us3.

Young people all need to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and to feel supported in their development. I suggest the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly given us a reality check on the need for safe and nurturing educational and family life. It has drawn attention to structural and systemic failures in the pastoral care of young people, the impact of social isolation and an exacerbation of mental health issues.

Our new understanding of the human condition provides us with strong concepts regarding the growth of all individuals. Our neurological conditions are flexible, have plasticity and respond to nurturing environments. We now understand that humans have strong genetic dispositions for learning new skills and for social collaboration. These elements can combine towards the growth of personal agency and hence well-being and intelligence 4.  Family life and educational institutions can limit and hinder these two main dispositions or enhance them. I suggest a modern psychological understanding of well-being and mental health can influence families and educational institutions with approaches designed to promote personal agency in young people’s development.

In the first place we know that young people need positive social wrapping in families and in educational institutions for making the best of opportunities for their development. Social wrapping includes aspects of: Feeling safe and secure; Having rich interactions and dialogues with carers and teachers;  Having choices for exploration through ordered freedom; Providing grace in young people’s oversight. Institutions need to build positive rich relationship models which provide these essential conditions.

Given social wrapping, there are ten key approaches for improving the personal development of young people through nurturing personal agency. The two main approaches are enhancing the skills development of all young people and also providing them with inclusive positive social experiences.

The acquisition of skills has a direct neurological impact on self-identity. Mastery goes towards becoming more independent and an aptitude for self-agency and efficacy – the ultimate of education. Too many young people languish in our institutions with low levels of skills, from the onset of education, and are carried throughout the system and managed as low ability groups. The labelling of these pupils in the early stages of primary school, even at the age of 5, becomes an influencing and determinant factor for academic success. Their personal agency is systemically undermined from the outset by being compared with their peers. This needs to change to engage those young people to become more motivated and engaged in their skills development.

Pastoral care was signposted in Scotland as a development priority as early as the ‘10-14 programme’ 5 in the nineteen eighties. It has become a matter of protocols rather than enriching education consistently with positive social experiences. Young people meet many adults in school, and further education,  but often don’t have someone who knows them really well. Many don’t receive inclusive social experiences, even though the evidence is that participating in positive inclusive pastoral groups is instrumental to individual well-being and to personality development 6. These positive social experiences are ones without formal success criteria, but are ones related to personal choice, creative and expressive activities, service and volunteering and are linked with well-being outcomes.

From pre-school childcare, through primary and secondary schools, into higher and tertiary lifelong education, there should be a clearer emphasis on skills progression  and richer inclusive social and creative pastoral  experiences for all young people.

There are other approaches which support these two main aspects of development of personal agency. These include a higher public service importance for developing and collaborating with family efficacy (How families aspire to be involved with their children’s broader education). The quality of institutional environments within their communities needs dramatically enhancing away from institutional industrial uniformity towards socially amenable places for communities to learn and interact. The pedagogical structures of institutions need to be shifted towards the individual and personal skills and pastoral needs of young people. The role of teachers moves towards being educators and having teaching, coaching and facilitating roles. There is more emphasis on networking, collaboration and dialogue for improving the quality of the system based on the growth of personal agency of all participants.

These approaches offer a change from current historical structures of institutional education  and point towards a socially collaborative way based on dialogue, mentoring and coaching. As society has woken up to cases of historical use of power in education, even for abuse and discrimination in public schools, then we can see how much power remains within the system to deny many young people, and even of their families, of their natural disposition for agency. A stronger sense of personal agency in life, and of citizenship, is this fundamental vision for education.

Euan Mackie is an educational Leadership coach and independent researcher into Social Educational Psychology.

1 Scottish Curriculum for Excellence: The Four Capacities
2 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26,
3 OECD, (2021). OECD Learning Compass, 2030.
4 Sorbring E., Kuczynski L., (2019). Children’s agency in the family, in school and in society: implications for health and well-being.
5 Scottish Education Department (1986). Education 10-14 in Scotland. Report of the Programme. Directing Committee, Consultative Committee on the Curriculum.
6 Durlak, J.A., et al. (2011).The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions, SRCD Child Development Volume 82 Issue 1.