Education: Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Rosie Clayton

The financial crash of 2008 has sharply exposed the increasing misalignment of our education system with its fundamental purpose – to meet the future needs of the labour market, and to effectively equip all young citizens with the knowledge and skills to succeed in life.

For many young people, the belief that hard work will translate into a good job for life has proved a false promise, with youth unemployment and underemployment at record levels. Yet despite this, as Andrew Adonis has noted, employers are consistently complaining that they cannot recruit enough young people with the right skills.

The nature of work is also rapidly changing. Young people leaving school today are likely to have numerous different jobs throughout their lifetime, many that haven’t been invented yet, and some which they may well create themselves. A report by the Prince’s Trust last year, The Start Up Generation, showed that 30 per cent of young people believe they will be self-employed in the future, while one in four expect to be their own boss within the next five years. Entrepreneurialism, resilience, creativity, and self-reliance will be increasingly important qualities.

Young people also have a keen interest in community and global challenges, and a strong sense of social purpose. Adam Lent from the RSA has talked about the rise of the ‘venturists’: “Young people determined to bring about change here and now. Venturists don’t wait for or ask others to deliver. They get on with delivery themselves. Their primary driving force is the mission not the money.”

Within this context there is a strong imperative to move beyond the inherent short-termism of political policy cycles, to look at how our schools can be more that just ‘exam factories’ and live up to young people’s expectations, ambitions and aspirations. How can schools harness the passion of all young people and equip them with the skills and knowledge that they will need to navigate their constantly evolving world?

Over the past four years this government has embarked upon a series of structural reforms of the education system, accelerating the pace of change started under Labour. Despite the ongoing turmoil, many of the changes have provided opportunities to rethink how things are done. Four big priorities are emerging for government and policymakers in the new education landscape.

1. Life beyond the school gate

Experiences beyond the classroom, particularly of the world of work, are of vital importance to young people to help them make choices in life and develop skills for the future.

A recent report by UKCES highlights that “29 per cent of employers say that experience is critical when recruiting young people and a further 45 per cent say it is significant. Lack of experience is also the number one reason that employers turn young job applicants away.”

We know that this is a huge equality issue, as parental networks and contacts often play a big role in sourcing work experience opportunities and sometimes first jobs for young people. Since the government abolished compulsory Year 10 work experience, few schools now see this as part of their core business, and last year Ofsted reported on the dire state of careers advice in secondary schools.

This needs urgent attention. One solution may lie in redefining the concept of the classroom. Studio Schools, for example, are based on the concept of the renaissance studio, where working and learning are integrated. Through multi-disciplinary project-based learning, core subjects are linked to real world challenges to aid engagement and understanding. Employers (from multinationals to SMEs) offer work experience and work placements, community organisations commission projects, and industry experts mentor students and give guest lectures and masterclasses, enabling young people to have a diverse range of learning experiences.

This kind of approach, which ingrains external expertise and a philosophy of partnership, is not only helping to bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace, but also allows young people to develop a wide range of personal and life skills, with an emphasis much more on the whole person and future life aspirations.

2. Soft skills and performance measures

Related to this there are growing calls for a more systematic focus on the development of soft skills and wider employability and enterprise skills in schools. The CBI makes a strong case for this citing the Singaporean education system as an example:

“The person who is schooled in the Singapore education system embodies the desired outcomes of education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life.”

This is a hot topic. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility recently published their Character and Resilience Manifesto, arguing that the development of soft skills should be embedded in school curriculums and teacher training.

Schools are highly data and target driven, and if this is ever going to become more than a woolly aspiration then we will need look at the measures used to assess school effectiveness and performance. The current accountability system focuses on a narrow range of exam achievement, and the proposed new secondary performance measures (looking at progress across five different measures including student destination post school) has the potential to allow schools to move beyond the crude ‘percentage of students who gain 5A*–C grades at GCSE’ measure currently most prized.

The rise in big data could also provide an opportunity here, with the potential to develop new tools for measuring and quantifying the holistic value and impact of a school, for example around changing aspirations and wellbeing. Like Singapore, we need a much wider societal (and political) definition of what ‘success’ in school looks like.

3. New expertise and local solutions

Recent structural reforms have transformed the nature of school governance. Governors are now expected to bring a range of high-level professional skills to the table in monitoring school performance and holding leadership to account. This has the potential to bring a new dynamism into the system, and one of the more interesting developments has been the emergence of local school federations – often partnerships between primary, secondary and FE/ HE providers, as well as external organisations such as LEPs – to share knowledge and expertise, and help develop local solutions to education challenges. This model allows a diversity of skills and expertise to enhance the whole, as well as collaboration and innovation between providers and across sectors which would previously have worked independently.

Good governance, however, relies on the ability of schools to source and draw in the necessary expertise. It also assumes that there is a steady supply of individuals in communities across the country who have the time and desire to get involved – often more of a challenge in rural and coastal areas than cities. As Estelle Morris has noted, “The shift in power over the last 30 years from local authorities to schools means the largest volunteer force in the country has had to transform itself from ‘friends of the school’ to a body capable of running a multimillion-pound key public service.”

There is clearly a huge scaling up challenge, and an imperative to share good practice and expertise, for example around training, and think more creatively about how this is done.

4. Technology and social media

For the digitally native generation, the internet is transforming all aspects of daily life, offering unlimited access to information and knowledge. New mobile technologies are challenging traditional notions of how and where we learn, and flexing the structure and boundaries of ‘work’. The advent of MOOCs and concepts such as the flipped classroom have the potential to allow young people to take more responsibility and ownership over their learning and skills development.

For practitioners technology enables the development of new online resource platforms. And social networks allow practitioners to connect and collaborate in new ways, and to feed into national debates from the frontline. The Headteachers’ Roundtable, originally formed on Twitter, and other forums such as #SLTchat and #PBLchat, allow educators to get together, regardless of location, to discuss experiences and put forward ideas.

So as the new education landscape takes shape, these four areas present opportunities as well as challenges for educators and policymakers. Academy freedoms have in theory given schools the autonomy to innovate, to adapt their curriculum, and to collaborate in new ways to better meet the needs of their students and community. However, the question remains as to how schools can be incentivised and supported through the accountability system to make this the norm rather the exception.

In March, the Labour party published the final report of its Skills Taskforce, calling for a new national baccalaureate for school leavers comprising of four components, including a personal skills development programme (with an element of workplace learning), and an extended project. Though currently lacking detail, this could prove an interesting development, particularly in cementing the importance of skills as well as knowledge, and moving towards a more holistic framework of school success metrics.

And whilst all this is going on, practitioners and educators across the country are getting on with the job – grabbing the digital tools, organising themselves, and embracing the venturist mindset – helping to shape the landscape rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Rosie Clayton works for the Studio Schools Trust and tweets @SST_Rosie. This article originally appeared in the spring edition of the Fabian Review 2014. 

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