What is the big message?
We have to prepare the next generation to be world ready, not just exam ready.
The current system is very focused on driving literacy and numeracy. That is important, but it is not enough. We need to be more ambitious. Computers and AI already beat humans at numeracy and will soon beat them at literacy. We can not turn the next generation into second rate computers. We have to help them deal with a world of unimaginable change. That means we have to help them be resilient, deal with people, work in teams, love learning for life, solve problems, think critically.
We have to be more ambitious for the next generation than we are at the moment.
- What works today will not work tomorrow. A radically uncertain future requires that we prepare the next generation in a different way.
- Our competitors are changing and charging ahead. Asian school systems which perform well in PISA tests have been criticised for churning out students who are intensively crammed to do well in tests, but lack critical thinking, teamwork and creativity. Those systems are aware of their limitations and are now changing to produce more rounded citizens of the future.
- Inequality remains entrenched: there are many great schools but there are too many children who are left behind by the system. The personal, economic and social costs of inequality are high and felt particularly acutely by left behind towns and communities.
- Average is not good enough. If Global Britain is to compete successfully, it needs to remain well above average relative to its OECD peers.
- AI means we need to up our game. Computers already beat humans on numeracy and will do on literacy. If all we do is churn out children who can pass literacy and numeracy exams, we will be churning out second rate computers. We need to be more ambitious for the next generation, to help them thrive and survive in a world of AI.
Has COVID19 affected your proposals?
The RSA published a survey which showed that only 9% of people want to go back to how things were before COVID19. This is typical of crises: people want to know that their sacrifices have been worthwhile. At the nadir of World War II, the government produced the education Green Book, which paved the way for a transformation of education after the war. We have the opportunity and obligation to be as ambitious as our forbearers were.
COVID19 shows how unpredictable the world is. Today’s learners will live to the 22nd century. We have to equip them with the ability to deal with unimaginable change.
What are the implications of COVID19 for education?
It is too early to know what the long term implications of COVID19 will be. But already, we can see at least three implications for the future:
- COVID19 is a huge opportunity to learn and discover new ways of educating the next generation. It is a giant, if unwelcome, experiment from which we should learn. From online learning to abandoning exams, the education system has been forced to adapt at unprecedented speed. We urgently need to find a way of learning from this experience: discover what works and why.
- Adversity is increasing inequality. Many families lack the space, technology and support required to sustain home based education. The IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) estimates that children with better off parents spend an average extra hour a day on education in lockdown that children with the least affluent parents. Cumulatively, this will widen significantly existing attainment gaps which also largely reflect the socio-economic background of the parents.
- Schools need real leadership. Many school leaders have done an outstanding job at adapting, finding new ways of engaging children and supporting parents. Some heads, who are used to “running the regime” successfully have found it harder to adapt and change. Future heads need to be trained and supported to lead and adapt through change and ambiguity: they are far more than just leaders of learning.
What are you actually proposing should happen next?
The future has to be both designed and discovered.
To design the future perfect system, we propose a commission to build lasting cross party support for desired system. But in a world of radical uncertainty, not everything can be designed: we also need rapid and radical bottom up innovation.
To discover the future we propose two ideas:
- A central body to identify and help scale the best innovations which work. Our relatively fragmented system encourages innovation but discourages scaling.
- Creation of VIP areas (voluntary improvement partnerships) which will be given the licence to implement agreed but radical systemic changes in local areas across a group of schools.
Isn’t there already too much change in the education system?
There has been far too much churn, considerable change and little progress over the last twenty years despite the outstanding work of professionals, schools and the voluntary sector. That implies the system itself is flawed and stopping progress: we need change which enables teachers and schools to deliver their full potential.
We need steady change, not churn. It needs to be done with the profession, not to the profession. That is why we propose to “Establish an independent commission, or Royal Commission, to build a common vision, practical plan and sustainable coalition for change which has public and political cross-party support.” This long term plan will ensure that change is steady and lasts beyond the lifetime of the government of the day.
How will this help the most disadvantaged?
Equalities and support for the disadvantaged should not be an add-on to the existing system. Levelling up needs to be designed into the heart of how the system works. We do this in several ways:
- Certification of learner’s capabilities gives all learners the incentive to keep on improving. The failure tag which comes from exams which sort children instead of certifying them is an incentive for high performers to perform, but leads to lower performers disengaging with the whole system.
- Focus on functional skills will make the curriculum more relevant and engaging to learners who may not see the point of education currently.
- Refocus the accountability system onto improvement of schools, not just current performance. This will not only stretch the best schools, but it will also make it easier and less risky for the best teachers to join the most disadvantaged schools.
- The idea of VIP areas will encourage a focus on place-based solutions where the complex needs of the whole child can be addressed. They should develop innovative and practical solutions which can be scaled up nationally.
Shouldn’t we stick to the basics: numeracy, literacy and a knowledge rich curriculum?
Recertifying teachers every five years is the last thing the profession needs right now.
Are you proposing to abolish OFSTED?
Yes. We believe we need a far better system of school inspection than OFSTED currently provides.
The current system encourages short term fixes, not long term improvement. We propose an inspection system which relentlessly focuses in school improvement. This will mean even high performing schools will be challenged to get even better; it will also make it less risky for talented teachers and leaders to join a lower performing school.
Although OFSTED has made great improvements in the last few years, its brand is tarnished and it does not command the respect or trust of the profession. We need a fresh start.
Would you abolish GCSEs?
Yes. They used to be important as end of education exams. But education no longer ends at 16. They serve no useful purpose. They are fodder for league tables which serve the system, not the child; they encourage teach to test; norm referencing means that 30% of each school generation is failed by the system. Moving to a system of certification will show what each child has achieved and is capable of achieving.
We will keep A levels or their equivalent (eg Baccalaureate) because higher education needs a sorting system for admission purposes.
What does the commission propose to do about MATs, faith schools and fee paying schools?
Is this commission any different from any other commission?
The future perfect education commission is different in four ways: other groups may share some of these characteristics, but not all of them.
- Global focus. We explicitly have tried to learn from what is best and emerging practice around the world. We wanted to avoid getting stuck in the weeds of a domestic education debate.
- Future focus. Focus on today’s debates will not get us to where we need to be. We set out to start at the end objective and work back from there. Our short term recommendations (a new commission and VIP areas) are the first steps towards designing and discovering the future perfect.
- Change the debate. We recognise that we do not have all the answers. Only if we ask the right questions can we find the right answer. This commission is about provoking debate around the questions which need to be asked.
- Research led. Although the commission consulted widely, we wanted to avoid being a talking shop. The Commission would like to thank Warwick University for their outstanding research support.
Were you really politically neutral?
Do all commission members back all the proposals?
No. The intent of the commission was to provoke the national debate, not to achieve consensus. Perhaps the only agreement was that the system needs to change radically.
The report represents the balance of opinion across the commission. We expect and encourage commission members to continue this debate and agree or disagree on individual proposals as they see fit.
How realistic are these proposals, really?
The proposals reflect best practice and emerging practice from around the world, as identified through the research from Warwick University. This indicates the ideas are feasible.
The core idea of helping the next generation become world ready, not just work ready is not radical or original, it harks back to the vision laid out by the government during World War II:
(a) to provide a school environment and training that will enable every child to develop his capacities to the best advantage as an individual;
(b) to prepare him to take his place in the life of the community as a useful citizen. In this connection the importance of equipping him to earn a livelihood must always be kept in mind;
(c) generally so to assist the development of body, mind, and spirit as to enable him to lead a healthy and happy life
Our future perfect is in many ways a Back to the Future vision.
How confident are you that education will change in the way you hope?
The main obstacle is that there is a blob which is highly vested in the current system. There is a prison of success: stakeholders who succeed in the current system do not want to change their success formula. Successful exam factories will be challenged if asked to be more ambitious for their children; officials who sustain the exam factory system will not want to change it; individuals who feel threatened by change will want to stick with a system which is tried and tested even if it fails children.
It is clear that change will have to happen. The only question is how soon it will happen.
Why focus only on schools in England?
Education is a devolved authority: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have very different systems which will require different approaches. We recognise the vital importance of early years development, and of further education and higher education. Addressing these areas would have made the scope of work of the commission too large to manage effectively. We hope other commissions will focus on these areas.