This week young people across the land are getting their A-level and GCSE results. For most of them this is a cause for celebration, the culmination of years of hard graft under strange and difficult circumstances. Their effort makes it all the more critical that the learning and skills acquired in gaining these qualifications equip them to flourish in the lives and careers that lie ahead of them.
Regardless of whether these young people go on to university, an apprenticeship or a job, they will all be entering a labour market being transformed by the application of new technologies such as AI and automation.
Thriving in this new world will require skills that draw on distinctive human attributes that machines and AI cannot replicate. Workers will increasingly require a combination of hard and soft skills that complement, rather than rival, new technologies.
Meanwhile, the net-zero transition will upend whole industries and create entirely new ones. Children in school today are more likely than ever before to have several careers over their much-longer working lives. And they will enter employment in a post-Brexit economy looking to play to its strengths in sophisticated and increasingly globalised manufacturing and services industries.
This is a daunting set of challenges for which the English education system is failing to prepare pupils. It is, as we argue in our new report, an analogue system for a digital age.
The problem is that after years of ideologically-inspired tinkering, the education pupils receive is overly focused on passive forms of learning based on direct instruction and memorisation, instilled via a narrow set of methods and subjects.
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This is driving educational performance in the wrong direction. Incentives in the system have pushed schools to shrink what they teach, and the subjects pupils take are increasingly drawn from a small range of traditional academic subjects. This is squeezing out more creative subjects in the arts, which complement hard, technical knowledge. Far from being a soft option, these develop important interpersonal skills highly prized by employers, who are increasingly disgruntled at the limited scope and quality of education workers are receiving.
High-stakes exams at the end of courses now dominate assessment, which promotes teaching to the test and narrow pedagogies. More than half of schools are starting GCSEs early, further squeezing what pupils learn. All the while, many private schools have taken the opposite tack, diversifying their curricula to leave maximum room to develop interpersonal, transferable skills in their pupils. This is terrible for social mobility.
Amplifying all this is the school-inspection regime. Widespread fear of Ofsted, because of the system’s high-stakes nature, further restricts innovation among schools, particularly in areas of greater deprivation.
True, the government can point to England’s above-average performance in the OECD’s PISA rankings, based on the achievements of 15-year-olds in reading, maths, and science tests. But we have been treading water on this scorecard for years while our rivals surged ahead. And even this masks significant regional disparities.
In the meantime, OECD thinking on skills has evolved. It now recognises that the original PISA assessments were too narrow and incentivised the wrong behaviour and has developed more sophisticated measurement tools to test more complex skills.
But instead of following this path the government has doubled down on embedding a narrow core of traditional, knowledge-heavy subjects. We have a chance to change this. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have said they will place education at the centre of their policy programme if they become prime minister. Our report sets out some suggestions.
First, replace the current system of assessment, including GCSEs and A-Levels. In its place should be a new, rigorous, qualification at 18 based on the International Baccalaureate which would include multiple, rigorous forms of continuous assessment.
Second, reform Ofsted. The current grading system – where already 86 per cent of schools are rated good or outstanding – should be replaced by a detailed one-page summary of strengths and weaknesses, but retaining a pass/fail assessment for schools which require urgent remedial measures.
And third, depoliticise the curriculum. An expert commission should be established to reform the national curriculum and base it on minimum proficiencies for numeracy, literacy, science and digital skills. But it should be bolstered by the softer skills of collaboration, communication, and creativity.
While our recommendations have received significant support, some critics have inevitably called this a recipe for dumbing down and returning schools to the 1970s. Nothing could be further from the truth. Discipline, rigour and accountability to parents are still paramount for any school. Our plan is about raising standards, future-proofing the curriculum, and making schools accountable for the right things.
Steve Coulter is Head of Industrial Strategy and Skills at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and Visiting Senior Fellow, London School of Economics.