Education reform is all the rage at the moment and it seems that every day brings some new proposal (or protestation) about how that should be delivered. One reason for the many conflicting views on the subject is not because of differing ideologies but because there is a lack of consensus as to what exactly that reform should be trying to achieve.
Britain has an admirable history of developing its system of education, particularly from the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards. The Education Act of 1870 was the first specific piece of legislation to cover the provision of education and was, in part, influenced by the industrialists who were calling for mass education to maintain the position of Britain’s manufacturing industries in an increasingly competitive world. At that time, parliament listened closely to the concerns of industry and the resulting piece of legislation was to have a profound and lasting impact upon our society.
In many ways, our current situation seems to mirror that of the 1800s when industrial revolution had spread beyond these shores to enable the rest of the world to compete. Today, rapid technological change has opened up existing global markets and created new ones; more countries have emerged to challenge for a share of that trade; government is still listening to the business world and its claims that our young people don’t possess the necessary skills for employment; and there is a common agreement across political parties that reform is necessary to bring about the desired result of a stronger, globally-competitive economy.
However, where things differ significantly from the late 1800s is that we no longer have such a clear notion of what industry we are preparing our young people for. Finance, life sciences, specialist manufacturing and the digital and creative industries are just some of the key areas we are told must play their part as we move to a knowledge-based economy. The majority of industry in this country is no longer factory-based and therefore the system of mass education created to support it is no longer sufficient.
What is clear though, is that the system in its present state does not provide those leaving education with a sufficient set of skills to enable them to meet the demands of a new economy. In order to change this successfully, we need to consider not just what we teach but how we teach it.
Creating an education system to meet the demands of the twenty-first century cannot be achieved simply through changing the curriculum or the format of an exam. It requires the same technologies that have revolutionised the global economy to be allowed revolutionise our education system. Across the world, business is adopting and using new technologies at an ever increasing rate but innovation in the classroom still only exists on a cottage-industry scale. Only when proposals for mass education reform start to accurately reflect the modern world of work will we start to create a workforce that can adequately support it.