Our exam system is hopelessly out of date
To compete in the digital world, pupils need a new, dynamic set of skills and plenty of work experience
Think about how much the world has changed in the past 20 years. We’ve seen the advent of the internet, smartphones and artificial intelligence, all affecting the way we live immeasurably. How much has the education system changed over the same period? Not much.
Our exam system has hardly changed since Edwardian times. Our schools are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the “how of education” – delivering the curriculum, meeting the metrics of exam success and complying with inspection criteria – even as Ofsted emphasises the need for “independent learning”. The truth is, making students sit alone at their desk does little to prepare them for a world where they will be working digitally, flexibly and collaboratively.
So how can we make our schools fit for purpose – especially when 88 per cent of employers say that UK school leavers are not adequately prepared for the world of work? From 2020, the Government is introducing new T-levels, which offer 16-year-olds an alternative to A-levels and involve some work experience. But this is not nearly radical enough. Tomorrow’s school leavers and graduates will require a range of skills, not just scores: over their careers, they are likely to have an average of 17 jobs in five different fields of employment. Core skills like maths, writing and science will remain key but modern employers demand new ones like collaboration, coding, digital literacy, fluency in languages, critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurial skills.
We need to prepare young people not just for their first job, but for their last, so that they remain economically productive for the whole of their lives. Linear employment with steady progression looks increasingly outdated in the age of Uber and Airtasker.
Millennials can still just about remember a time before the internet. But those entering the education system now – the so-called “phigitals”, who draw no distinction between the physical and the digital worlds – will have no memory of a time when they were not connected online wherever they are. Schools need to adapt to address the needs of these pupils, for whom there is no difference between learning in a real classroom or a digital one in which they are connected with teachers and other students anywhere in the world, and who, when they enter employment, will see absolutely no difference between working in a real office or having a meeting via Skype.
These students will also have to convince future employers that they are of greater value in the workplace than robots and computer programmes deploying algorithmic artificial intelligence at lower cost, greater speed and maximum efficiency. Automation and artificial intelligence have already shown they can equal or better the work of humans in a wide range of jobs, from dermatologists to seismic testers in oil fields. Some experts predict that by 2030, 400 million to 800 million people worldwide could be displaced by technology. Many children entering primary school today will ultimately end up doing jobs that don’t yet exist.
What we need is a new ecology of education which puts work experience at its heart. It’s something we are already trying to do at Stowe, well known for producing individuals who question conventional orthodoxies and disrupt complacent markets with entrepreneurial ideas.
Since a young Richard Branson established the school magazine, we have strongly encouraged pupils to develop their own business ideas. This summer pupils undertook work experience in fields from information technology to FI engineering. They learnt that success in the job market depends on your adaptability, and that softer qualities such as integrity, compassion, humility and humour are as important as paper qualifications.
We have become so accustomed to a narrow range of GCSE and A-level metrics to define success that broadening our educational focus seems almost unthinkable. But we must do it. Already employers such as Microsoft have got tired of waiting for schools to catch up and have started to design their own online courses. Ultimately, unless they respond, schools could find themselves cut out of the education process.
Helping young people to become confident, responsible and successful citizens requires them to discover their commercial and economic potential while they are still at school and university. The world of work should infuse everything we do in schools, being constantly reinforced by teachers, parents, outside speakers and opportunities to engage with future employers.
Schools, universities and businesses need to work together to prepare young people for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t yet been invented and solving problems which can only be imagined. The successful school of the future will regard preparation for work as more important than preparing its pupils for A-levels.
Dr Anthony Wallersteiner is headmaster of Stowe School
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