British education is at a crossroads. Parents, on the one hand, are often desperate for their child’s school to improve its results, believing that this will considerably improve their prospects. On the other, the government and employers worry about standards, but also often hold that the current curriculum does not help students acquire the skills to be useful in work, or, indeed, competitive in the global marketplace.
A third group – reflected in a recent report from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education – deplores the effects of exam pressures on the mental health of both teachers and pupils. Students seeking counselling at Russell Group universities increased by 28 per cent between 2012 and 2015, with some institutions seeing a rise of 70-75 per cent. In the UK, as well as elsewhere in the world, there is an increasing emphasis on "teaching to the test"; opponents argue that educational achievement should be about more than simply hitting exam benchmarks.
Despite this worrisome picture, all parties generally acknowledge that education must at least partly adapt itself to new realities in the world of work. Our current mass educational system – little changed since 1870 – was designed around 19th-century industry’s need for workers who were minimally literate and numerate and simply followed instructions. As a recent Institute of Directors (IoD) report argued, today’s world is very different, centering on entrepreneurialism, professional services, inclusive leadership and creative industries. Quoting figures from the Bank of England, the IoD warned that the coming wave of automation will render as many as 15 million "traditional" admin jobs in the UK obsolete. There is no reason to think that 150-year-old didactic frameworks are suited to this new world.
What is to be done? Even large professional services firms now recruit in large part on behaviours and competencies, rather than absolute academic achievement. In the long term, a solution may involve moving away from models of test-centric grade-obsession and toward new self-directed or project-based ways of learning. And many newer professions, particularly in the tech and creative sectors, do not rely on academic learning as much as problem-solving, experimentation and conferring with others who are also creating knowledge. There will need to be a new emphasis on self-directed learning as these models infiltrate the mainstream.
How can we make the necessary changes happen? It is notoriously hard to achieve change in an area like education: political solutions are difficult because they require the balancing of pressures from many different (and often opposed) groups. What can be effective, however, are new platforms that promote better ways of doing things at little extra cost, and with incremental positive change. Innovative software can make it easier for students to direct their own development in ways that go beyond the old grade-centric paradigms, and could allow us to "nudge" the development of education in the right direction. Just as Twitter, Vine and Facebook changed the way we communicate in our work and social life, a real, connected and interactive "life CV or passport" can change the way we approach educational achievement.
Some new platforms are aiming to do exactly this by offering a digital record of everything a pupil has done – and importantly can do: a kind of online portfolio for pupils. Moving away from old-style CVs and demonstrating actual personality with design flair, mirroring the kind of content that emanates from creative workplaces, is a fairly compelling way to demonstrate that you are ready to step up work with such cohorts. (Only about 8 per cent of US high school students now have a LinkedIn profile, perhaps due to its corporate image. Couple that with the increasing tendency of young teens to say they “don’t do Facebook” because their parents are on there, and the pace of change – even risk of obsolescence – for established social channels can begin to look pronounced).
These digital portfolios will showcase aspiring talent while allowing employers and universities to evaluate the whole person – their interests, accomplishments and aspirations – rather than just a couple of lines on a CV.
Crucially, such new platforms will have the ability to share information via discussion boards, building networks of mutual interest inside and outside school. Through an app, pupils can join clubs and communicate with peers and teachers. Flexible models will also have the ability to run on desktop or mobile, combining social network functionality with aids to help students document their achievements as they evolve. Using new tools like this, students will have a clear picture of who and what is out there, helping them to find their own career niche. Our own Skoolee version of the technology launching in the UK aims to have 500,000 teenage student users in its first year.
As the metric of achievement changes, the monomania for testing and the pressure it brings will likely diminish. If the next 30 years are anything like the past 30, the major changes in education will come from empowering technological innovation rather than the dictates of policy experimentation. And that can only be a good thing.
Dr Tony Feghali is chief executive officer of Skoolee
Skoolee is launching in the UK with support from the UK Lebanon Tech Hub, an initiative backed by the UK government and funded by Lebanon’s Central Bank which is designed to provide promising technology start-ups with a launchpad to accelerate their growth and global expansion