The government’s schools white paper, published this week, is an underwhelming homage to the unfinished reform agendas of the last decade or so. It has a stodgy managerial feel to it, stressing continuity and swerving ambition. In doing so, it wastes a clear opportunity to reset what, and how, pupils learn in the face of substantial changes to our economy.
One of the fundamental truths it misses is that technology is reshaping the contours of our labour market. While some skills are prone to displacement through automation, other will boom. Predictions about the nature of change vary, but there is a widely held view that we will need to adapt.
For instance, the OECD and World Economic Forum calculate that, aside from industry-specific skills, more people will need to build digital, problem-solving and social skills. The EU Commission shows that problem-solving will become one of the most important cognitive skills, while the strongest demand will be for non-cognitive ones. Creativity is routinely cited in the literature. And a study by Harvard shows that the market increasingly rewards interpersonal skills – even more so, in fact, than the cognitive ones typically seen as valuable in a world of pervasive technology.
What does all this mean for schooling? Pupils will still need to develop a solid grounding in numeracy and literacy – gateway subjects that are crucial for other learning. And they will need sufficiently broad knowledge to contextualise their learning. But they will also need time and space to acquire these other skills.
Achieving such a blend is not easy. The pedagogies required to deliver complex skills are harder to master. Already stretched teachers would need to find time to cover all bases. And to maintain high standards, we would need to introduce refined performance measures.
So, how far are we from realising this? Driven by the reforms of the last 12 years, our current system falls short of what is required. Through various levers, it nudges schools to pursue a narrow curriculum, adopt an instruction-heavy approach to teaching, and assess a small range of aptitudes.
The government’s white paper was an opportunity to change this, but it has not gripped the mantle.
For instance, there will be no changes to the National Curriculum for the rest of this parliament. Its announcement instead of a ‘new arms-length national curriculum body’ will provide teachers with off-the-shelf teaching resources and has been criticised for its ‘identikit’ approach.
The white paper is right to improve professional development opportunities for teachers. These have been far too scarce and we know that good quality teaching is the most important in-school factor when it comes to improving pupil outcomes. But there is a distinct lack of focus on giving teachers more training on technology to augment learning outcomes; as a recent TBI report shows, improving access to broadband and tablets will not, on their own, cut the mustard. There is also insufficient focus on pedagogies aimed at imparting complex non-cognitive skills.
Nor will the government change assessment or headline performance measures, which do so much to set the weather in terms of what and how schools teach. This lack of flexibility means it omits many of the skills that are valued by employers.
It also means the white paper’s more adventurous policies risk being blunted. For instance, its aim of full academisation by 2030 paired with a power for local authorities to set up trusts could, if executed properly, tidy up the messiness of the current system – and more thoughtfully so than previous attempts. However, the innovative potential accompanying academisation is impaired by the persistent focus on narrow performance measures.
The government should be far more ambitious than the narrow version of education it has served up. For instance, it should introduce a comprehensive tech strategy that really embeds adaptive learning in the classroom. This would enable pupils to build foundational skills more quickly, which would create room for the kind of pedagogies that focus on complex skills. Tech platforms could also be used to enhance the latter, for instance by supporting project-based learning to develop collaborative problem-solving skills.
It should also channel more energy towards teacher training that supports these elements. Research shows that pedagogies that draw heavily on memorisation are increasingly less useful as workplace tasks become more complex and include more non-routine analytical skills. Meanwhile the opposite is true for those built on thinking creatively and applying knowledge to new contexts.
And it should reconsider assessment. We need to maintain strong accountability and high standards, but we can diversify what we measure and reward. We can do this through better real-time data capture and by folding more complex skills into the mix; the latter are increasingly viable to measure and assess, as the OECD has shown. By reforming assessment, we would create a feedback loop for change elsewhere, making it easier for schools to develop and refine new techniques. Some of the world’s top education systems have already changed gear and are busy innovating in these areas.
There is ample scope for pupils to thrive in tomorrow’s world, but if they are to settle on the right side of the changes that are taking place, their schooling must keep pace. By narrowing its field of vision, the government risks leaving them adrift.