Times Education Commission: our education system needs radical reform to avoid falling behind
The world is changing at an astonishing rate. The way we shop, work, travel and bank has been transformed in the last decade but our schools have hardly changed in a hundred years. Instead of adapting to the 21st century, education remains stuck in the 20th, and in some ways the 19th, century. At the very moment when artificial intelligence is taking over many routine tasks, learning has become more robotic.
British education is still an analogue system in a digital age, and there has been no serious or substantive reform for over a decade.
The Times Education Commission was set up last June – at the suggestion of the educationalist and historian Sir Anthony Seldon – to generate fresh thinking. It was the broadest inquiry into education ever held in this country, taking a year to review the whole system from early years provision right through to lifelong learning.
We brought together a group of 22 distinguished commissioners, including leading figures from business, the arts and science, as well as politics and education. In fortnightly evidence sessions, regional roundtables, youth panels, parent focus groups and one-to-one interviews we spoke to more than 600 people with an interest in education.
As I travelled around the world visiting the best education systems, I realised that Britain is increasingly an outlier
The pandemic has highlighted flaws in the system but it did not create them. A third of young people are defined as failures because they do not pass English and maths GCSE. Social mobility has stalled. Disadvantaged pupils are more than 18 months behind their wealthier peers at 16 – and 40 per cent of this gap emerges before they are five.
The system is failing to generate the skills that the economy needs. A survey of businesses for the commission by PwC found that 85 per cent of companies either have or are expecting skills shortages, 75 per cent have to give new recruits additional training in basic skills and one in six take no notice of A-levels or GCSEs because they have lost faith in the assessment system.
Nearly two-thirds of parents think that the education system does not prepare children for either work or life. A third of teachers plan to leave the profession within five years and one in six young people are probably suffering from a mental health disorder.
As I travelled around the world visiting the best education systems, I realised that Britain is increasingly an outlier. In Estonia, children study robotics from the age of seven, in Finland pupils are taught how to study “fake news”, in the Netherlands wellbeing is as important as academic outcomes and in Singapore and Shanghai creativity is a core part of the curriculum. In a 12-point plan for education, the commission proposes reforming the assessment system to introduce a British Baccalaureate, offering broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18 and a slimmed down set of exams at 16.
We want a new curriculum, with a greater emphasis on creativity and entrepreneurship and an “electives premium” for all pupils to be spent on activities including drama, music, sport and dance. Wellbeing should be at the heart of education and the national citizen’s service extended to every pupil, with volunteering and outward bound expeditions for all. We propose a new cadre of Career Academies – elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry – mirroring the academically-selective sixth forms that are being established.
There should also be a significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and every child must have a laptop or tablet, the modern-day equivalent of pen and paper. It is time to take the party politics out of education with a 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, cultural figures and local mayors. The pandemic was a disaster for many children but it also created a reset moment for education. We must not waste it.
Rachel Sylvester is Chair of The Times Education Commission
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