Educating kids for the future – change is needed now

Steve Coulter from The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, on why the UK's education system is outdated and what can be done to provide children with the tools succeed in the future.
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It’s difficult not to notice how technology is changing the world around us. AI, automation, and smart systems are transforming the economy and society. This has profound implications for the skills and attributes that young people will need to thrive as future workers and citizens alongside increasingly sophisticated machines and software. Preparing them for this new world poses a big set of questions for our education system. Is it up to the task?

Over the last 30 years, schools have had a lot of policy attention from governments, as well as more money. England is now ranked above average in international education rankings, for example the OECD’s ‘PISA’ scores on reading, maths and sciences, where it comfortably beats economic rivals like the US.

But the truth is we have been coasting for some time while the most advanced economies pull ahead, and the decent overall placing conceals wide geographical variations. For example, while schools in the Southeast are right up there with the world’s best, those in the North West and North East perform relatively poorly.

But the biggest problem is that the current system does not incentivise schools to teach pupils the right things, in the right way. Nor does it assess them in a way that accurately reflects their abilities. The government’s focus on instilling basic knowledge and holding schools accountable through Ofsted is understandable. But it has been taken far too far and pushes schools to deliver a stilted and narrow curriculum that focuses on memorisation and rote learning. This is taught through rigid and unimaginative methods that squeeze out other subjects.

These include things like art, design and music. Often derided as ‘soft’ subjects, these are actually vital in giving children the skills they will need in a more automated, technologically driven world where critical thinking, teamwork and communication – things that machines cannot do – will be paramount. James Dyson, the inventor, has slammed the curriculum as too old fashioned and failing to prepare pupils for the world of work. Many other employers agree.    

Education experts in the OECD and elsewhere are now changing their guidance on what should be taught. They now emphasise the ‘4Cs’ – creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving – as the skills workers need to succeed in the labour market, alongside technical knowledge and digital skills. Importantly, progress on these can now be tested and assessed in the way that maths and science have long been. Leading economies like Singapore and Japan are already stealing a march by adopting these methods as, revealingly, are many of England’s top private schools.

Yet the government seems unlikely to be ready to abandon the rigid, stilted approach. Liz Truss, the likely new Conservative leader, has said she wants to be an ‘education prime minister’, yet all the signs are that she will favour more of the same in schools policy.

Our recent paper on education sets out a better way. By teaching the 4Cs alongside core subjects, assessing pupils later and through a wider range of mechanisms than high stakes exams, reforming Ofsted, and depoliticising the curriculum we can equip schools to deliver an education system for the future.     

Steve Coulter

Steve Coulter

Steve works on industrial policy, corporate governance, skills and labour market reform, and the environmental sustainability agenda for TBI. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, where he previously taught political economy after working as a business and economics producer and analyst for BBC News.
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