One of the main challenges the British economy will face in the wake of Brexit will be the skills shortage – we are educating too few young people in useful skills and educating too many in areas that are not particularly advantageous.
The problem is in knowing what is useful and what isn’t – so a centrally planned system would be disastrous. What we need therefore is Agility.
In Software Development (my own occupation), the traditional approach is known as the Waterfall methodology: each stage needs to be completed and reviewed before progress is made on the next stage. First, “what” is to be developed (the specification) is agreed, then “how” to do it (the design), then the code is written, and then tested. As development progresses, it becomes increasingly expensive to fix any mistakes made at the earlier stages, especially when it is discovered that the specification doesn’t actually meet the requirement, often because it is difficult to fully understand the requirement in the first place. This unfortunately is all too common, and explains why complex software projects frequently overrun their budgets – it is very difficult to know precisely what is wanted in advance because it is difficult to grasp implications, side-effects and unintended consequences.
To address this, the Agile Manifesto was launched in 2001. Agile development proceeds in a series of iterations, allowing the software to adapt to changing circumstances, and enabling mistakes to be discovered more quickly, and allowing people to discover what it is that they actually want as they go along.
Education faces a similar problem, in that young people often don’t really know what they want to achieve, coupled with the fact that, in our current system, you only get one main shot. Anyone missing that chance won’t get into the best universities, and therefore won’t get the best jobs. Even if you do manage to pass your exams and and get one of the best jobs, you might find yourself not totally suited to it.
When young people make decisions about their future, they don’t know enough to be able to tell how useful their chosen course will be for their career prospects. With rapid changes in the economy, and careers no longer lasting for entire working lifetime, people will need to retrain, and in so doing will require an agile education system to support them.
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Higher education is therefore a massive commitment, which is undertaken far too lightly; I would suggest it needs a radical rethink.
I would like to see a system where everyone gets a second chance; indeed, not just a second, but multiple chances. I would like to see a system with flexible opportunities, and lots of options, where if you make a bad choice, you can go back and do something else, or have another go at attaining the necessary standards to progress. A major objection to Grammar Schools is their association with the 11-plus entrance examination, because prospective pupils only get one chance; with a system based on multiple opportunities, that objection would be removed, and it would allow other innovative types of schools to be established.
I would like to see opportunities to get out of full-time education at a young age and into the world of work, but continuing with school on a part-time basis. Given that as recently as 1972 the school leaving age was 15, and 14 before 1944, would not part-time work experience from the age of 14 not benefit children generally, in terms of improving soft skills and aiding emotional maturity? It does seem that keeping everyone in full-time education produces the opposite effect.
Broader experiences might encourage those who are disillusioned to return to education at a later date, once they have gained maturity. Taking the disenchanted away from their peer groups even on a temporary basis whilst learning other life skills might well be a way to address the issues of underachieving working class boys, especially if they can continue part-time education, or return to full-time education later.
Furthermore, children spend so much of their time in groups in which they heavily outnumber adults that they learn more from their peers – it seems to be that the ratio of children to adults is the exact inverse of what would be most beneficial to their development. Educational researchers have found that children rarely get bored and misbehave when they learn through observation and gradual participation in the adult world. It makes them feel more integrated into their community; learning through doing also develops children’s ability to combine information and make practical judgments, vital skills in a modern workplace..
Clearly, implementing a truly flexible system would not be without practical difficulties. Secondary education would no longer necessarily be age-based; there would need to be adult access to secondary as well as tertiary education; even the workplace would be impacted, with rights to flexible working arrangements in order to allow part-time access to education, or perhaps sabbatical leave. Universities would need to offer short duration courses as well as, or even instead of, 3 year degree courses. Funding would also need some imaginative solutions – but with part-time employment combined with education, there would be more opportunities for self-funding; the Government could perhaps assist with tax-breaks or reduced National Insurance contributions for self-funders.
A further challenge would to avoid adding to the burdens of the teaching workforce. This is, again, where the world of computers is likely to be able to make a contribution – technology-assisted learning should be able to help provide at least some of the flexible educational opportunities needed.
In time, an agile system should reduce the pressure on teachers, because exam results would be far less critical. Teachers would be able to spend more of their time on actually educating pupils and passing on life-skills, rather than being passive participants in exam factories.
So in summary, an agile education system should benefit pupils, teachers and employers.