Today, with A-levels in hand and excitement about the future, the nervous wait is finally over for thousands of students up and down the country. Congratulations to all of you; finishing your secondary education is a huge milestone and the memories and friendships from your time at school will stay with you throughout your life.
One of my simplest mantras has ended up becoming my most enduring. But the reason behind “education, education, education” was that the focus that a nation puts on learning and development says everything about the direction in which it is heading. Without investing in both the spirit of education and the belief in the power of discovery, as well as how it shapes the future of people’s lives, everything else falters. Productivity, innovation and well-being are all dependent on people having the skills to thrive in the 21st century.
It’s why I made it so central to my government. It said everything about how we saw the role of the state: that it was an enabler, there not to impede or encroach but to help people fulfil their potential. We embraced new technologies and approaches and, through radical reform, brought in a new curriculum, establishing a new national standard; clearer pathways to higher education and future training opportunities; three-year spending commitments, to give teachers time to properly plan; and lower class sizes, so each child could benefit from having more time with their teacher.
In addition, we invested significantly in staff and infrastructure, to ensure both that school buildings were fit for purpose and that learning was student-centred. We brought in 36,000 more teachers, 274,000 more support staff and saw young people achieving record results, particularly in schools that had previously been underachieving.
Each individual success is to be celebrated, and I hope many of those who received their results today are doing so. But I worry about upcoming generations and whether the education system is modernising and is adapting enough to the future. In an era of unprecedented and transformational technological revolution, the education debate seems stuck in the past. The grammar-school discussion is essentially a nostalgic sideshow; higher education faces significant risks because of Brexit; and in Scotland, the shortcomings in reform are being brutally exposed as the country plummets down international league tables.
If I were still in office today, the principles of my government would still apply: fairness and equality of opportunity, and radical but deliverable policy. But the answers and application would be different. The lesson from our time in office is not that we should rewind the clock to 1997, but that we should always be seeking to modernise, to innovative and ensure that people can keep up with the pace of change.
In education—as a recent report from my Institute set out—new technologies are now opening up the space for new models of teaching. Many schools and universities have already started to facilitate students being able to watch lectures at home via the Internet, and instead spend their classroom time on problem solving and coaching with teaching staff.
In the near future, new personalised learning platforms could also use AI to assess a student’s level of proficiency and then tailor an individual learning plan accordingly—a level of attention that would simply not be possible for a teacher responsible for a few dozen students, abilities and skills sets at any one time.
Education also cannot stop at age 16, 18 or 21. As automation and AI fully hit, technological change will accelerate at an even greater pace, so we need to ensure lifelong skills and training becomes the norm—including completely upgrading apprenticeships for today’s world. For example, there are people in jobs today—even in my Institute—that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. Companies such as Udacity in the US are already offering nano-degrees, with workers at firms such as Ford and AT&T completing online modules to constantly update their skills, but we need to think about the right incentive structures so that businesses supply these and people have the power to demand it.
But education also cannot be looked at in isolation. For many already, previous assurances that working hard and getting a good education will lead to a solid job no longer feel like they apply. If we want people to thrive today, and to help them navigate this change, we need to rethink everything. Connectivity, tax, health and transport all need new thinking and new policy platforms. I can understand the appeal, but reheating leftovers from the past will not satisfy the appetite or need for what can sustain us today.
Britain should be taking hold of the opportunities that the changing landscape brings. Rather than looking backwards, we should be building the infrastructure, institutions and business environment needed so that companies and citizens can participate fully.
Those getting their A-levels today will be shaping the industries of the future, whether that is biopharma, cloud computing or even the new careers that arise out of new technologies. The government should be preparing them for this, reshaping our education system around the rapidly changing world, so that the next generation can realise their potential. Nothing short of a revolution in public policy to match the revolution in technology will make the grade, and neither should it when our children’s futures are at stake.