Our Education System Isn’t Working. It’s Time For A New Approach

When it comes to education, Britain is falling behind. While others look to the future, we seem stuck in the past. The ways in which we teach are outdated, but so too is our subject matter and the way that we define success or failure in an academic context. Something needs to change.

It’s a major problem that in Britain, it’s still all about grades. In 1999, when every savvy country in the world was buying gold or holding on to it, we started selling the bulk of our bullion. Selling our bullion cost us billions––supposedly £5 billion or so. Now, as forward-looking countries are directing their education systems towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how to manage AI, changing demographics, environmental sustainability and many other global challenges, our main educational focus is managing the transition to the new GCSE grades: moving from A to H to 0 to 9. I assure you that the cost of this ‘shifting deckchairs’ strategy will be a lot more than £5 billion over the years to come.

But this has a human cost as well. Year after year, decade after decade, we continue down the narrow academic path, ignoring and sidelining students who don’t engage and succeed academically, when in fact, if they were given more practical subjects and learning opportunities, they would thrive. The current system leads academically successful students to believe that their future is sorted, when it isn’t. Employer organisations like the FSB, IOD and CBI regularly cite entry-level and scale-up skills deficits as a restriction on productivity and growth.

How many hundreds of thousands––indeed millions––of young people has the system let down, and how many billions has it cost them and the country? How much wasted potential have we left untapped and how many young lives have we sabotaged, all for the sake of grades and league tables? In the years to come, the league table legacy will be seen as a betrayal of young people’s life chances and a misuse of the country’s finances. I do sometimes wonder if there is a conspiracy to keep the socially immobile where they are. Surely we can’t stand by much longer and watch the same mistakes being made? We need to nurture and improve young people’s mindsets, moving them from a fixed mindset to a positive mindset, an ambitious mind-set, a growth mind-set.

And we need to do this now more than ever. Why? Because a new industrial-technological revolution has arrived. This time, it will be more powerful than anything that we’ve had before. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, says that Microsoft needs more people to succeed in order for it to grow. The UK needs the same. We need to engage more young people through education in order to make them successful. To do this, we must start down a path of change as soon as possible––and not turn back.

To do that, however, we need policymakers and influencers to take notice. Why are they not facing up to the problems we face? Do they understand the problems? The data clearly shows that the current system isn’t working (poor performance in international literacy and numeracy rankings, low productivity, high relative youth unemployment and underemployment, to name a few issues). Maybe if education was more about teaching students how to engage, create and communicate effectively with a team of their peers and less about ‘outlining how earthquakes are measured using the Mercalli Scale’, we would serve our young people better. (I love looking up past Geography GCSE papers to highlight how curriculum space could be found for 21st century essential teaching … my apologies to Geography teachers). Maybe if policymakers listened to the views of business leaders, teachers and educational specialists we’d come up with a national 20-year education cross-party plan to help us move up the rankings. It’s a win-win for young people and the country. And maybe if we taught real-world, contextualised maths rather than specialist hypotheses and calculus that will never be used beyond the exam hall, we would also find ourselves higher than #26 in the world numeracy rankings.

Could we make use of the newly released Pearson/Nesta/Oxford Martin School report, ‘Future of Skills: Employment in 2030’ as a blueprint for the UK’s education system? It is forward-looking, stating that we will need to develop new pedagogies ‘to support dynamic knowledge and skill development’. It is predictive, on major societal and economic trends that will affect the future of work and the skills that will be required to be successful. It shows that both knowledge and skills will be required, and that there is a need to rebalance and redesign our education system (which, currently, is mainly knowledge-based). It states that ‘the research findings have significant implications for education systems in the US and the UK’ and that ‘education systems developed 20-30 years ago will actually need to plan for a future 20-30 years away’.

We must take note of these predictions and recommendations. In these uncertain times, of this I am certain.