Our exam sys­tem is hope­lessly out of date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

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - AN­THONY WALLER­STEINER

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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