We need an education system that excites children

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Andy Powell, CEO of independent education foundation Edge, sets out his vision for the future of education.

The nation needs an education system that excites and stimulates children, providing them with the learning they need - and deserve - to fulfill their potential.  This means providing a curriculum of practical and vocational learning alongside theoretical study. 

This need for change has never been more pressing.  It is not due to the fault of any individual, any school or even any one political party but due to the simple fact the world has changed - and our education system has not changed fast enough.  Indeed, it is largely based on a system developed over a century ago; a factory manufacturing model where children are placed on a learning conveyor belt, then sorted, packaged and labelled according to their so-called intelligence.

However, in this day and age there is no excuse for such a top-down, one-size-fits-all education system that does not enable all children to thrive in their own way.  We must recognise that young people are individuals with different talents and dreams.  As such, not all children learn in the same way.  We need to move towards a system of mass customisation, based on a strong common core of essential skills and knowledge, which allows young people to develop their own particular talents and aspirations.

We must support young people in discovering what they enjoy and are good at - and who they want to be in life.  And we must encourage and support teachers and schools in responding to these different needs.  Young people will learn if they see learning as important, meaningful and worthwhile. 

A crucial issue for the recession

Revolution in education is a particularly crucial issue in the context of the current economic climate.  Young people leaving full-time education next summer will find themselves in the toughest recruitment market in years.  The current outdated education system is not making the best use of the most precious natural resource this country possesses - its next generation. 

The UK requires people with passion, know how, initiative, creativity, resilience and self knowledge; people who can get on with others and who know when to listen and when to lead.  These skills and abilities cannot be gained in the classroom alone; they come from ‘practical learning’ – learning by doing things for real, working with experts, and integrating theory with practice.

Since Edge first launched its ‘call to action’ in April - inviting everyone from education professionals, MPs and opinion formers to parents and young people to help us create a mass movement for change – the response from all areas has been extremely positive.  Practical and vocational learning is no longer a marginal topic, no longer the option for other people’s children. 

Six Steps to Change

Edge’s Six Steps to Change Manifesto identifies how governments across the UK can reform the education system to better meet the needs of all young people and employers.

The Six Steps to Change are:

  1. A broad curriculum up to age 14 with opportunities to develop life skills and experience a range of future options. Life skills such as team work, problem solving and enterprise should be explicitly taught and assessed through practical activities linked to academic subjects and vocational areas.  There should be a new emphasis on direct experience of future options, including visits to workplaces, colleges and universities, and hearing at first hand from people, who have already made career and learning choices. 
  2. SATS replaced by an individual profile of attainment, skills and aptitudes which would be used by students, parents and teachers to choose a post 14 pathway.  In order to make choices parents and students need to understand a student’s strengths and aspirations.  The profile built up over their time in school would help students, their parents and teachers discuss the next steps.
  3. At 14 all students, in addition to continuing a broad curriculum, including English, maths and science, would be supported in choosing a pathway matched to their interest and abilities, each with a different balance of theoretical and practical learning.  For some the pathway will be largely academic and theory-based; for many it will be a blend of theory and practice, connecting new knowledge and skills with the wider world; and for some it will be centred on practical learning.  The emphasis will be on breadth and keeping options open for young people while allowing them to pursue their interest in depth.
  4. Students on practical and vocational courses would be taught in specialist facilities or specialist institutions and by appropriately experienced staff.  This will ensure students are motivated and receive an excellent professional education.  There will be many more specialist institutions, the nature of which would be determined locally.  Teachers of vocational subjects would be appropriately experienced, trained and receive the same pay and conditions as those teaching academic subjects.
  5. At 16, students would choose to specialise within their pathway, change to another pathway or enter employment with training.  For example students on the engineering pathway might specialise in electrical engineering.  Some students might choose to leave full time education and start an apprenticeship.
  6. Beyond 18, students would have the opportunity to study at degree level in a centre of vocational excellence endorsed by employers.  This would raise the status of vocational learning, and provide clear progression routes, while improving the employability of the students. 

All practical and vocational courses should reflect the demands of the modern workplace, be formally endorsed by employers and evolve under their guidance – as well as supported by current experts.  Students on such courses should spend at least ten per cent of their study in the workplace – i.e. eight weeks over two years.  They would have a programme of study during this time and receive guidance and support from a trained workplace mentor. 

The Six Steps to Change Manifesto aims to eliminate the current academic bias and the corrosive divide between academic and vocational learning, which views ‘know how’ as inferior to ‘know what’.  It outlines a way to ensure there more high-quality options that combine theory and practice and are regarded by all as credible alternatives to a high-class academic route. 


Will these changes come about?  I believe they will.  Our current system has reached the point of diminishing returns where we have tried most mechanisms; from more money, to targets with related incentives and public shame, to new types of qualification, and a thousand and one new ‘initiatives’.  It is hard to imagine that we are suddenly going to transform education unless we go back to the basic principle, which is that people learn if they enjoy it and can see its relevance. 

We need a new approach, a new paradigm.  This becomes very apparent when we compare ourselves with other countries.  The UK has some great strengths which we must not lose, particularly in terms of top-end, high quality academic learning.  But our greatest weakness is our ability to turn diversity into hierarchy.  Our system is largely based on the misguided belief that one form of intelligence is in some way more important than (or ‘better’) than another. 

Encouragingly, I think the necessary changes are already starting to happen.  The signs of spring are all about us:

  • The cross-party Skills Commission report, Inspiration and Aspiration recognises that a totally new model of careers information, advice and guidance is needed – for example, ensuring people have access to websites where they can find out about different training routes and use forums to discuss careers with people who have experienced them.
  • A high profile major new employer campaign to provide more meaningful, relevant and inspiring experiences of the world of work for young people is being planned. 
  • The growing interest in ‘employability skills’, the piloting of explicit teaching of positive psychology and the emergence of schools and colleges which build learning around core skills and capabilities, locking enterprise in the broadest sense into all aspects of learning.  Examples range from RSA’s Open Minds and HTI ‘Go for It’ schools, to enterprise Academies and colleges like Sheffield City College.
  • The move against rigid SATs tests and related targets, and interest in a more balanced ‘scorecard’ of attainment.
  • The development of a major new learning pathway in the form of Diplomas, the success of Young Apprenticeships and the rapid increase in take-up of more practical and vocational qualifications within schools.
  • Totally new types of institutions with a commitment to more practical learning delivered in the right facilities by appropriately experienced teachers, such as Madeley Academy (a Thomas Telford School) and Studio Schools.
  • Emerging interest in a new and more practical pedagogy and the challenging of existing divisions between school, FE and HE teacher training - a new Skills Commission enquiry is starting on this issue. 
  • The revival of apprenticeships.
  • Foundation degrees (where they are truly developed with employers), new initiatives between HE and employers, including HE validation of work-based learning.

The seeds of change are sprouting - but they won’t automatically grow.  For them to flourish they need to be recognised and nurtured.  They need the support of the nation; from parents, to young people, MPs and the business community. 

Andy Powell, CEO of independent education foundation Edge.

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