The education system has to keep up with technology if we're going to prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow.
As the fourth industrial revolution begins to kick into gear and technology moves at an ever-increasing pace, it may be time for education in the UK to think harder about how it prepares young people for the future.
For centuries the school curriculum has been designed around guiding the most talented students towards a university education and preparing them for posts in traditional industries including law, banking, manufacturing, computing, education and big business.
The most in-demand occupations right now are roles that were not on the map as little as five years ago.
In recent years, however, the last part of that equation has been shifting. What if the employment roles of the future are totally different, thanks to the rise of robotics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality?
Those questions lead to an even thornier one. How can we prepare the students of today for jobs that don’t even exist yet?
Learning for life
The subject is being debated in the UK after Chancellor Philip Hammond, as part of his Spring Statement, announced that the Department for Education will invest up to £40m in pilots to test the effectiveness of different approaches to lifelong learning.
“Re-training is vital, with many of our young people today needing to retrain at least once,” he said.
In many ways though, the Chancellor is under-stating the challenge that our economy and our society faces.
A recent study by the World Economic Forum predicted that 65% of children in school will, in future, be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist. It also highlighted that the most in-demand occupations right now are roles that were not on the map as little as five years ago.
This presents us with a huge dilemma. How do we create the education systems to develop the skills and knowledge in people we will depend on to drive our economy in future?
Britain leads the way in the creative industries, so we need to nurture innovation and creativity in our school children.
What the Chancellor is acknowledging is that if we don’t act now, then we face the grim reality of large numbers becoming unemployed as their skills become obsolete for our economy.
As an example, current estimates suggest retail will shed over 900,000 jobs by 2025. Industry is changing – and it’s happening fast.
So, what are the solutions?
1. Study models from abroad
Looking at how other countries are tackling this problem can be enlightening. Singapore (recently touted as a model for post-Brexit Britain) has taken action to second-skill its workforce through the Skillsfuture programme.
Under this system everyone is provided with funds – around £275 - from the government to spend on skills training of their choice, often in schemes that are government funded. The training is seen as a vital part of career resilience – recognition that as the requirements of jobs change, people will need to adapt according to the demands of the economy.
A key feature is group work, which enables participants to collaborate and jointly tackle the challenges that learning new skills and changing how they work requires.
A similar scheme in the UK would cost the government approximately £8bn, which puts Philip Hammond’s £40m in perspective.
2. Place a greater value on soft skills
Britain leads the way in the creative industries, so we need to nurture innovation and creativity in our school children – and value those traits and skills more highly.
The industrial model of education is no longer working. The education system is founded on the notion that there is only ever one right answer and the modern world values people who think more expansively than that.
In many ways, soft skills are a far stronger determiner of success than the ability to get the right answer. The stars of tomorrow will have high emotional intelligence, high communication skills and the kind of empathy and understanding which makes working across cultural borders possible.
In the future, and even right now, it is not necessarily the bookish children who go on to succeed. On the contrary, it is often children that do not perform so well academically that develop skills as a coping strategy to help them to collaborate better.
Training students to be agile is also a challenge for education, which traditionally works in a very non-agile way.
Even now, not all leaders have a degree. Modern thinking is that up to two-thirds of success is due to soft skills deployed in the workplace, and as a result many big businesses have moved away from ‘graduate only’ recruitment.
3. Embrace apprenticeships and entrepreneurial studies
As recruitment changes and degrees become a less important part of the process of selection, education needs to embrace new models that help students learn the key skills that meet the demands of employers of the future.
It may be that apprenticeship schemes are a more effective way of developing modern business skills, or that entrepreneurial studies could be a more valuable part of the curriculum than many most-established subjects.
If job seekers no longer need traditional skill sets to succeed in the employment market, then there will need to be greater flexibility in the national curriculum to reflect that change and prepare them for it.
At the very least they will need to be comfortable with technology, of course, and that is an easier need for schools to address. Helping students gain those all-important soft skills, analyse their own leadership styles and come to terms with the weaknesses and strengths of their individual personality traits is more complex.
4. Use education to develop leadership, agility and communication skills
Leaders in the workplace are being challenged in new and radical ways as the impact of changes in demographics, technology, and the changing social contract between workers and employers are forcing organisations to re-design their structures to become more agile.
Students of the future will need to be comfortable with this new structure and a more de-centralised approach as people come together to tackle projects as a team - before dispersing again and moving onto new assignments.
The challenge in leading in this new environment lies primarily around communication, a skill which traditional education does not always address.
The reality is that in future, team members will often work remotely, come from different cultures and have very different expectations and ideas around the team’s purpose, roles and how it should be led.
Training students to be agile is also a challenge for education, which traditionally works in a very non-agile way. Going from a structured ‘sit and listen’ classroom environment to working from home two days a week and being part of a global team is big step, no matter what the job of the future may entail.