Recent years have seen the launch of several important commissions, committees and working groups aimed at transforming England’s education system. These have been led by some of the most highly-respected professionals in the sector. To drive change forward, I recently chaired a webinar bringing together the leaders of some of these groups to share their incredible work.
Carrying out deep dive research into the current state of affairs, these commissions have gathered evidence from employers, young people, parents, teachers, creative industry representatives and many other stakeholders. The consensus is clear: the education system is not effectively preparing young people for the future. In fact, in many cases, it is actively setting them up to fail. So what practical steps can we take to change this?
“To effect change, everybody has to engage,” said Lord Shipley, whose 200-page report highlights countless issues relating to the inequality of access to opportunities for young people. Recommendations include a broadening of the curriculum, greater investment in the 600,000 young people not in employment, education or training (NEET) and a recalibration of the apprenticeship levy towards apprenticeships for younger age groups. It was my privilege to serve as one of the specialist advisers supporting the Committee’s work.
“Every organisation needs to decide what they are going to do,” Lord Shipley said. “They must develop an action plan and act on it.” For his part, he is heavily promoting the report in the House of Lords and elsewhere, most recently through a private members bill on careers guidance in schools.
“Change has to be bottom up,” said Peter Hyman, who is helping Rethinking Assessment to develop and pilot a new learner profile. The hope is that this can be used as a framework to gather evidence and support new approaches to qualifications and assessment.
“Politicians tend to follow what’s going on rather than leading it,” he said, explaining the rationale behind the work. “80% of our work therefore has to be showing what we can do. If we can demonstrate that other forms of assessment and ways of delivering the curriculum are possible, politicians will have to follow. But first we’ve got to provide the evidence and advocate.”
“Nothing changes until everyone changes,” said IAC committee chair Louise Hayward. “Parents often push for nine GCSE’s because they believe more qualifications means more opportunities. To engender cultural change they (along with other stakeholders) must be part of this discussion. Everyone must believe that whatever is coming will make life better for both them and their children.”
To support the change, the IAC, which I was delighted to support as a Commissioner, has developed a rigorous framework for designing and piloting new qualifications and assessment, and for measuring their effectiveness. The aim, over time, is to offer more equitable and reliable methods that will support all young people, regardless of their background or educational opportunities.
Rachel Sylvester believes it’s time to move away from sterile debates about knowledge versus skills, which distract from the broader issue: that education needs to reconnect with employment. “The pandemic has been a crisis but also an opportunity,” she said. “The system has been shut down and restarted, creating a huge chance to do things differently.”
The Times Education Commission has travelled to countries like Finland and Estonia to explore how vital workplace and broader life skills such as digital skills are woven into the curriculum (rather than taught as standalone extracurricular subjects – a concept unique to England). With a solid evidence base behind it, Rachel believes pressure from commissions is vital for making the economic, social and human case for educational change.
Finally, Sir Ian Diamond also advocated for greater integration between education, skills and employment systems. He highlighted the changing demands of the labour market as a key driver for evolving the role of further education. By 2030, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future predicts that FE colleges will become even more vital anchor institutions in local communities.
“We need to think about colleges beyond just apprenticeships,” Sir Iain said. “They are about apprenticeships, of course, but they’re also about much more.” He believes we need more fluid transitions between colleges and universities as well as improved employer engagement. “I encourage everyone to spent a little time inside a college – it’s an unbelievable eye opener.”
The most striking things about the discussion was that, despite the varied nature of these commissions’ work, they speak in a unified voice. Following Covid, England has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restack the educational card deck in favour of all young people, rather than just a select few. So the time for debate is over. Now is the time for action.
This blog was first published by the Edge Foundation https://www.edge.co.uk/news-and-events/blogs/Practical-solutions-to-educational-reform-What-do-the-experts-say/