Why school leavers are ‘under equipped for life’ - Time to rethink education - RSA

Why school leavers are ‘under equipped for life’ - Time to rethink education

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  • Picture of Martin Ainscough FRSA
    Martin Ainscough FRSA
  • Education
  • Creativity
  • Fellowship in Action

Martin Ainscough FRSA invites Fellows, educators, business leaders, carers, students and creatives to contribute their thinking about how we can reimagine education to prepare young people for life in the 21st century.

As a secondary school teacher, I often wonder about the very foundations of the way secondary schools organise their curriculum, with students moving around a set of subjects that are taught in silos at the direction of a bell. As Sir Ken Robinson FRSA has been voicing for many years, this system was invented to grow a standardised workforce for the industrial revolution; to feed the factories of an Empire with people who had a standard level of basic knowledge, could respond to instructions and had a shared understanding of the social norms of the time - effectively that they knew their place in the social hierarchy.

However, as the economy shifts as a result of globalisation and traditional white collar jobs start to disappear with an ever increasing level of automation, surely this approach isn’t the way to prepare our young people for life in the 21st century. The Confederation of British Industry is just one group who have been saying for some time that school leavers are ‘underequipped for life’ because they don’t have the soft skills or divergent thinking required to be successful in today’s society. Additionally, the very promise that our education system is built on: do well at school, go to college then onto university for the guarantee of better career prospects, seems flawed in an age when 30% of UK graduates are either unemployed or under-employed.

The truth is, after formal education, we never actually work in this way. We don’t spend years trying to retain information and training how to answer questions in a way to gain maximum marks. We work collaboratively, solve problems together and work in ways that combine knowledge, skills and so-called ‘subjects’ along with our hands in order to develop, create and build solutions.

If we look to the future, we face significant challenges as a human race, not least worldwide population re-distribution and finding ways to respond to climate change. 

Unfortunately, these issues are barely covered in school because they aren’t measured and don’t appear in examinations. We now work in an education system that is so target driven there is little opportunity to focus on anything that doesn’t directly lead to an increase in examination results. The results of these examinations are so high stakes that they can influence teacher pay, trigger Ofsted inspections and have led to a football manager style results-driven culture for headteachers. 

To make matters worse, through the revised school performance measure of Progress 8 and the English Baccalaureate (not actually a Baccalaureate at all, but a set of results in five subjects considered to be more academic) we have now created a hierarchy of subjects with those considered to be ‘more academic’ at the top of the hierarchy. Inevitably, if we combine this with the significant budget cuts faced by schools, the first areas to face cuts are those at the bottom of this hierarchy - visual arts, drama, dance, music and PE – the very subjects that offer the kind of development around the soft skills that business leaders are crying out for. Researchers from Sussex University recently found that the proportion of GCSE candidates in state-funded schools taking the EBacc rose from 22% in 2010 to almost 40% last year at the expense of students studying arts subjects. 

It was this set of circumstances that motivated myself and two of my colleagues at Fred Longworth High School, Pauric McKeown and Jon Kime, to organise an RSA screening of the film Most Likely To Succeed, followed by a discussion last month in Manchester. The feature-length documentary examines the history of education in the United States, which is not dissimilar to that of our own, and reveals the growing shortcomings of conventional educational methods in today’s innovative world. It provides a powerful look at the possibilities and shows us that we can expect much more from our young people, if only we give them the responsibility and provide genuinely engaging learning experiences that transcend our traditional views of teaching in subjects.

The event has generated a huge amount of interest and has encouraged many others to arrange screenings in their own communities and workplaces, which is a testament to the power of the film. There are some big questions raised by the film about the very foundations of our current system, many of which were discussed between our panel and audience debate. The shared understanding that there are clear failings in our current high-stakes, performance-driven system by all who attended (including parents, teachers and business leaders), really stood out for us and strengthened our resolve to develop a project that can connect all of these groups in order to do what we can within the constraints of our current system to try something different and to create a powerful case for change.

Get Involved

We’d like to establish a group of change makers who are interested in developing these ideas. Join us on 27 June (18:30-20:00) at our RSA Rethinking Education Workshop at MadLab in Manchester, to look at what we can do to rethink how we educate our young people in a way that values their whole development. 

The workshop is an opportunity for anyone who was inspired by our screening of Most Likely to Succeed, or who is interested in thinking about how we could reimagine education to prepare our young people for life in the 21st century. We are looking to focus on the following 3 areas;

  • Provide a way for teachers and people from industry to collaborate in creating learning opportunities that allow students to approach learning in an authentic, engaging way
  • Establish a network of people interested in reimagining education in the North West
  • Create a sharing platform for people to share action research & student projects in order to build an evidence base to critically evaluate the impact of different approaches to learning

Register your free ticket to attend: RSA Rethinking Education Workshop.

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  • Entirely agree with the need for a 're-think'. As educators we are missing a trick when the Arts aren't used to develop the ability to learn. A complete re-think of the way I teach my Year 9 students in the classroom  (music) has acted as a catalyst for them to develop as individuals and more responsible learners. They are learning how and why they are learning not in a 'music silo' ...and....an added bonus - they have all achieved more musically than they thought possible! The change has been simple, but the value of the Arts very clear to see. This promises to be a great opportunity to discuss ideas with others - looking forward to it.

  • This is so timely and greatly needed, thank you for leading this important project for which there will be strong support. I am just as excited to read about your change-maker focus areas as I am to know that this will be Manchester-based. I think we have all the right ingredients in the North West to make this project fly.Few areas have the community, the accessibility, the research, the creative and digital industries, MNC / SME mix, the passion and, not least, the agility to make change happen. I am very much looking forward to joining the session and contributing to an incredible tide of change for education.

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