Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England

Steve Coulter Head of Industrial Strategy, Skills and Sustainability

Alexander Iosad Policy Lead, Digital Government Unit

James Scales Skills and Future of Work Lead

August 23, 2022
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The new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are profoundly altering society, the economy and the labour market. In order to thrive in a world increasingly shaped by automation and artificial intelligence (AI), human workers will require skills that complement these technologies – and adapting to them will require a radically different education system.

England has undergone several decades of reform in education, aimed at improving standards. At the core of these changes was a long-overdue and welcome focus on accountability, discipline and safe school environments.

However, the education system in England continues to rely heavily on passive forms of learning focused on direct instruction and memorisation. Taken together, the current curriculum, mode of assessment and inspection regime drive schools to overemphasise knowledge, and to instil this via a narrow set of methods and subjects.

Of course, pupils still need a good grounding in knowledge. But to flourish in increasingly digital workplaces, they also need more space to develop attributes such as critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaborative problem-solving (which experts dub the “4Cs”).

Instead, by doubling down on a narrow core of traditional, knowledge-heavy subjects and designing accountability measures around these, the government has missed a prime opportunity to heed these changes.

Policymakers should urgently correct course. Addressing these issues and overhauling the system will be challenging and will require a radical but sequential approach to change. This is not about a return to the misguided ideologies of the 1970s. Instead, at the core of a reformed system should be a revised curriculum, more sophisticated modes of assessment and a new, rigorous accountability framework that is better attuned to the things that matter most. By pairing this with a comprehensive edtech strategy, we can personalise learning so that pupils grasp the basics much more quickly. This combination of reforms would free up time and introduce the right incentives for a focus on developing more complex skills. That would be a system fit for purpose in an age of profound transformation.

Everyone from employers’ organisations to the numerous experts consulted for the Times Education Commission are calling loudly for action. Some leading private schools are already responding to market pressures by adapting their teaching along the lines we propose in this report. Others are bound to follow, and it is vital that state schools are not left behind. It is time for a rethink. What we need is a bold reform programme.

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