How to compete with the ‘Second Machine Age’? Build an army of human robots - RSA

How to compete with the ‘Second Machine Age’? Build an army of human robots

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  • Education
  • Schools

This blog is by Amelia Peterson FRSA, one of the authors of RSA’s report on the future of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education, which is being published next week.

In a speech to mark National Apprenticeship week, Michael Gove yesterday asserted that to survive in business young people need “not just impressive academic qualifications but attractive personal qualities”. He listed eight or so desirable qualities, including being “responsive and respectful towards others, resourceful under pressure, tenacious and self motivating”. This list is not so far from that featured in the Roy Anderson report last month, or that has previously been produced by the CBI. Clearly, Gove realises he cannot ignore calls from our captains of industry for long.

If we want those outcomes, we have to design for them. The structures, environments and cultures of our schools need to be reshaped to promote the social and personal development of all young people, not treat them as dots in a system, acquiring points and qualifications.

In other systems and schools around the world, this transformation is already underway. At the end of his speech, Gove lists the components with which his government is creating “a long-term plan for all children”. Among them are “changes inspired by what’s happening in the nations with the highest-performing educational institutions” and “changes to make the curriculum more modern”. For anyone who follows education developments internationally, the combination of these statements is confusing. Around the world, leading education jurisdictions are indeed making their national curricula more ‘modern’, but their end products look rather different from what is coming in England in September of this year.

English-speaking jurisdictions like Australia, New Zealand, and Scotland – and even Gove favourites like Singapore – have all re-oriented their curricula in recent years to focus more on the competencies that young people need to thrive in an increasingly complex world. These countries recognize that as inter- and intra- personal skills become ever more vital for success and stability, their development cannot be left to a mish-mash of extra-curricular activities.

Gove would do well to look to British Columbia, the highest performing English-speaking jurisdiction in PISA, which achieves scores close to the Singapores of this world but with a multicultural, socioeconomically diverse population. In B.C., it is taken for granted that education in an intensely personal and emotional process; everyone speaks the language of personalisation and whole children development, and the curriculum is in the process of being comprehensively redesigned to focus on three core competencies labelled thinking, communication, and personal and social.

So what can we in England hold on to? How can we find space in our system to justify the time and resources that we so desperately need to commit to supporting young people’s social and personal development? We have a sentence, at the start of our )old and new) National Curriculum. It reads:

Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based, and which:


  • Promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and 
  • Prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. 

This isn’t much, and the second sentence in particular is too broad and vague to carry much weight. However, the lines do achieve some traction in our National Ofsted framework, where inspectors have to make a judgment as to the extent to which schools are promoting the “spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development” of their pupils. When you dig down into that phrase, it gets to the heart of what schools have always been about – and to the heart of what will really equip people to thrive in what Gove himself yesterday dubbed the “second machine age”.

Because of this, the RSA has spent the last few months investigating how schools and society could better support the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of all children. The report – following an international and historical literature review; a systematic review of Ofsted data; a series of case studies of schools; and convenings of an expert group – will be published next week.

This investigation is needed more than ever to counteract the seductive but simplistic idea that ‘SMSC’ and character development are all about behaviour. The prioritisation of behaviour in Ofsted measures has made it a key focus for schools, and Gove did nothing to remedy that yesterday when he stated the “The first step to ensuring students have … character virtues is enforcing effective discipline and behaviour policies in all our schools”.

Aligning discipline with the development of good character wipes out in a stroke fifty years of progress in research, taking us back to the ideas of behaviourists who saw correct action as the result of repeated enforcement and reinforcement. Behaviourism is now largely defunct in the field of psychology. In its place, thanks to the work of generations of Nobel Prize winners like Daniel Kahneman, is a much more complex picture of what determines our actions: how we are effected by our environment; how we develop and act on biases; and the interaction of emotion and cognition in influencing our choices.

In a connected world, where young people are faced constantly with examples of adult duplicity and contradictory behaviour, we cannot expect our schools to be enclosed islands that can set and manage behaviour according to their own rules. It is important that young people have the opportunity to develop a vocabulary and the reasoning skills to reflect on their own and others behaviour; to make sense of choices; and to develop a positive identity and strong moral self (one of the most significant factors in determining moral behaviour).

We also have to think about what personal qualities pupils are learning from the way schools are currently set up. Rather than self-responsibility and care for others, the dominant forces in our system teach children to use fear as a means of control; to focus on the end rather than the means; and that what is expected of you is based on your prior performance. Ours is not a system that really believes in self-management or the capacity for change.

Unlike Singapore, we cannot ordain a new focus on Character from the centre, but we can learn something from them – that character is worth prioritising, and that it takes real commitment from both the centre and schools, that translates into careful thought, time and resources.

We already benefit from a richer conception of character in this country held in the concepts of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. But the phrase has also been a stumbling block in that some of the terms are too opaque and seem too far from the ‘everyday’ business of schools. As we will detail in the report next week, schools need real time to think about what these terms means for their context and their pupils. For our new curriculum to approach something ‘modern’ schools must be given serious space to integrate and see through its guiding principles.

Amelia Peterson is a researcher at the Innovation Unit.

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