Is our Education System Fit for a Rapidly Changing World?

“The more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet it’s challenges.”
Sir Ken Robinson

Over half-term my God-daughter had her first baby and it was while looking at all the lovely photos that I realised that baby Erin is not only going to be a 21st Century citizen but is also really likely to be a 22nd Century citizen. I was also struck at the weekend when my son came back from university with a couple of friends who are both in their last year of a Teaching BEd degree that we are now beginning to see teachers in our schools that were born in this century not the last.

The last two generations – Generation Z and Generation Alpha have grown up with advanced technology as a given in their homes and classrooms. They are digital natives, as comfortable using apps and code as their grandparents were flipping pages. Children in primary school today will be looking for work in the 2030s. This generation of children, and the next, will increasingly be leaving school to find the jobs market completely unrecognisable to previous generations.

A 21st century education is about giving students the knowledge, skills and competencies they need to succeed in this new world. A 21st century education will be increasingly be delivered by teachers from Generation Z and Generation Alpha – are we adapting our education system rapidly enough to ensure that our education system is fit for our rapidly-changing world?

Evidence is clear that great teaching and learning makes the biggest difference to student outcomes – great teaching, in every lesson, from every teacher, every day – is our most powerful lever for driving improvement at system-wide level. This will be even more important in the future. Arguable we know more now than we ever have done about what makes great teaching and learning. The Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence review written by Professor Rob Coe and others suggests that there are four priorities for teachers who want to help their student learn more:

1.understand the content they are teaching and how it is learnt
2.reate a supportive environment for learning
3.manage the classroom to maximise the opportunity to learn
4.present content, activities and interactions that activate their students’ thinking

And yet changing everyday teaching practices is actually really, really hard. Rob Coe argues that if we want to help teachers to change these practices then, mostly, it is about teacher learning. ’Helping teachers to gain new knowledge, to develop insights and understandings of relevant underpinning theory, to build skills and techniques, and to acquire and embed new habits, can all be thought of as a learning process.’

The capacity in our system to do this is a real challenge. We expect our teachers to be subject experts, curriculum development experts, pedagogical experts, safeguarding experts, SEND experts, well-being experts, inclusion experts, parent experts….. I could go on. Only 34% of teachers report that their workload is manageable most of the time (NEU April 21).

Our leaders frequently have conflicting priorities, demands and accountability impacting on their capacity and sometimes capability. So with these tensions how do we balance prioritising teacher learning, curriculum development, moving to an evidence-based profession whilst managing workload and capacity in our schools? Some key elements are trusting our teachers – treating them as professionals, removing barriers preventing them from teaching, prioritising professional development – but not adding to their burden, developing their curriculum expertise.

To do this though we have to consider the capacity issue. Much has changed in the last 10 years in education and one potential solution has to be collaboration and partnership working. We have great capability in our system but I would argue that in too many schools we lack capacity (we must not conflate the two – many leaders have great capability but lack capacity due to the size, organisation or finances in their school. )

In some cases, I would therefore argue that this needs to be structural change to ensure greater capacity – as Sir David Carter said ‘No single school has all the answers and that we can only improve the system if we work better together’. Structures themselves are not panaceas but they can be enablers – structures can create robustness. Leadership does not necessarily need to rest with a single stand-alone headteacher, there is increasing evidence that leadership of a school may be better served when the school is connected to a partnership, federation or MAT. The infrastructure of the organisation then provides for wider leadership, opportunity for succession and sustainability.

The demands on our teachers, leaders and other school staff have never been greater. The pandemic highlighted what those of us in education have always known – teachers care deeply about the development, success and wellbeing of their students and not even a global pandemic can get in their way. We have immense capability in the system: talented and professional teachers, fabulous support staff, innovative inspirational leaders – and we all need to look at ways at ensuring that this resolves into the capacity to ensure that every child can success in the 21st century including beyond our own school.

Maria Dawes, SAfE CEO

Recent News