A couple of years ago I read an article in a leading UK newspaper for teachers that described the English education system as a hotbed of innovation. England, it claimed, is a country that experiments energetically with new curriculum, new teaching methods, new kinds of schools, and new structures for governance. It was a proclamation of pride in its education leadership.
The article I read wasn't written two years ago, but 100 years earlier. A lot has changed in the intervening years, not least the emergence (in educational terms) of countries that now regularly overshadow England in some comparative studies of standards. The forces of global competition and the accessibility of meaningful evidence are driving a want to, and an ability to, make better decisions about what works in education, and what doesn’t.
There remains today a powerful dynamism in education, but there’s also a growing consensus that change for its own sake is damaging. The demand now is not so much for constancy, but for long-term coherence between purpose and action. Parents and employers find the changing education landscape confusing. Education is indeed complex, but that’s no excuse for complication.
Perhaps it’s time to stand back, and try to answer what really is it that we want our education systems to deliver?
Some say that education is too precious to be assigned a purpose; that education is an end in itself, and that learning for the love of learning is all we need. That idea does have poetic resonance (“beauty is truth, truth beauty”), but it’s surely wrong to ignore education's other purpose; it lifts people out of poverty, and gives them the tools to lead fulfilling lives.
Parents, universities and employers want young people to leave education with skills that go beyond the academic or the occupational; beyond too, the core skills of numeracy and literacy. They value character, resilience, grit, integrity and a strong moral compass based on our values of tolerance and humility. They value creativity, problem solving and critical thinking. They want collaborators and team workers, who can communicate with impact, and who are able to take a position and to lead. These things are sometimes referred to (dismissively) as soft skills, but their outcomes are as hard edged as hard edged can be. They are as important as exam results. And they are vital skills for life, not just employment. So why don’t they get more focus?
Perhaps because they are hard to describe, let alone measure. There may even be a perspective among those already in possession of these skills, that not everyone needs them.
Education policy is plagued with false dichotomies - teach knowledge or foster skills; value the academic or invest in the vocational. The simple truth is that an education system fit for the 21st century is one that provides it all. One that imparts knowledge, and also skills; where what you know and what you can do both count. A system where the means of progress is based on something more than a bit of work experience and careers advice. And one that has a razor sharp definition of its purpose; to help people make progress in their lives through learning. Knowledge and skills and deeper learning are all vital parts of the equation.
The engagement and perspective of employers is very important, because employability is such a critical part of the fabric of our society. When their voice gets louder, we need to listen more intently. But we also need to appreciate that their perspective is not always coherent, such is the complexity of education.
If we think a focus on these issues will distract from more pressing needs like exam results or performance on global comparators, we should think again. Time and again we hear from governments around the world that this agenda for skills and deeper learning is where their focus is too.
Over the next year, at Pearson we'll be working with employers and education experts to delve more deeply into some of these issues. How can we transform a notional demand among parents, learners and businesses for greater skills and deeper learning into something more tangible, more real, more easily recognised and understood? This is a fascinating challenge. Let's hope we're not grappling with it in quite the same way a century from now.