The world of work is changing fast and not just because of Covid-19. Technology, automation, artificial intelligence, climate change, and, perhaps most importantly, changes in what people want from work are already reshaping our professional lives.

Covid-19 has accelerated some of these changes – the move to remote working and technologically-enabled interaction have been a revelation over the past year and given many people a taste of flexibility that was previously only a pipe dream.

With such rapid change afoot, it is vital that the next generation are prepared for the new reality, and yet, our education system remains largely unchanged since Victorian times.

The future not the past

Having had my eldest child start primary school this year, it’s something I have been thinking about a lot and obviously close to my heart, particularly as I have watched a child (young for her year) try and grapple with learning to read and write.

Education should be about equipping the next generation for the challenges of the future, but it is hard to escape the feeling that we are preparing them for a world that no longer exists. 

And for an economy that is largely dependent on services and intellectual property, that poses a problem for the future.

Shortly the Government will publish its consultation on post-18 education reforms stemming from the Augar Review, with expectations that university student fees, number controls, and course outcomes could all be in scope for significant changes. This is alongside the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, currently working its way through parliament, which aims to reform further education and training.

Whilst reviews and reform are to be welcomed, and the focus and investment on meaningful skills long overdue, we must not miss this opportunity for a much more radical review of the state of our education system, one that prepares children for the world of work of tomorrow, not yesterday, and teaches them the skills that will be needed to succeed in the future.

From classroom-based learning to the rigid subject matter, to early specialisation and even uniforms (why do we make school kids wear ties when almost all offices have dispensed with them?) – there is much about how we approach education that does not align with the future world of work, so why are we doing it?

Early start

In the UK we send our children to school at 4 years old, one of the earliest start ages in the developed world – countries like Germany start their reception years at 6, whilst some Scandanavian countries like Finland and Sweden start even later at 7.

And it’s not just the age we start school, from the first few months the UK system immediately launches into teaching children to read, write and do basic maths, again in contrast to many comparable approaches in Europe. 

All of which would make sense if it led to better outcomes, but it doesn’t –  the UK ranks below most of the nations that take a delayed approach in the PISA rankings tracking children’s educational attainment. Research suggests launching into formal education so early restricts “the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in children”.

Early Specialisation

And the story continues as children progress through school.

Most practical skills have been dropped from curriculums in favour of more theoretical learning. Whilst subjects such as design and technology and home economics might not be appropriate for children of the 21st Century, learning digital skills or financial literacy undoubtedly would be.

As they progress through school, the contrasts with other education systems continue. Children in the UK have to narrow down their focus after the age of 16 as they prepare for A-levels, forcing our adolescents into specialisation and deciding upon a career trajectory long before many are ready, and long before most of our comparable European neighbours.

In France, the Baccalaureate asks students to choose subjects from six thematic areas such as ‘Studies in Language and Literature’, ‘Experimental Sciences’ or ‘Individuals and Societies’, as well as blended assessment not as reliant on summer exams. This approach has now been adopted by many of the UK’s fee-paying schools through the International Baccalaureate, with Oxford University research suggesting IB students ““appear to hold an advantage” over their non-IB contemporaries in their ability to think critically.”

Post-18 education

Then, when we get to higher or further education, again the UK takes a singularly focused approach compared to other countries.

Across Europe, since the Bologna Process in 1999 there has been a system of higher education harmonisation across 29 countries, consisting of “basic training, obligatory and optional subjects, external and cultural placements and activities” to give students a much more rounded and portable experience.

In the US there is the system of ‘majors’ and ‘minors’, allowing a core specialisation with the addition of a supplementary and usually complementary focus on something else that could enhance your career prospects (i.e. engineering and robotics, or business management and Spanish).

Grasping the nettle

If the Government is serious about unleashing opportunities for ‘Global Britain’ in the wake of our exit from the European Union, then we need to give serious consideration for what the world of tomorrow will look like and how we can best position ourselves to seize the opportunities it presents.

Educational reform is difficult and emotive, with powerful constituencies to navigate such as parents, teachers, and teaching unions, so it is not surprising that things have remained unchanged for so long. 

But politics should not be about taking the easy route, or shying away from the difficult problems, it should be about tackling them head-on, having an open conversation, and building consensus for a better future. 

After a year of disruption, homeschooling, and the prospect that some university tuition might never return in person, what better time is there to think holistically about how we create the best learning environments for our children to best equip them for the world of the future?

After all, the world of tomorrow is arguably already here. 

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