Opinion: If we want our children to flourish, we must challenge the narrowing, academic curriculum

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Seizing the Agenda

‘Growth’ means more than economic recovery…

‘Growth’ means more than earning some paper…

‘Growth’ is exploring and learning from failure.

Through that process we tend to rise.

And what better teacher than enterprise?

From All Existence is Contribution

Friday’s Whole Education conference in London opened with this poem by George the Poet. It set up many of the themes for a day exploring the relationship between schooling and a very uncertain future. We heard from entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics and educators.

George’s mum, Edith Mpanga, came to Brent in North West London from Uganda. Like many migrants she was very ambitious and pushed her son to get a place at Queen Elizabeth School in Barnet. The grammar school helped him get a place at King's College, Cambridge. At 24, George is still in touch with primary school friends from Harlesden, informing his poetry with their stories of prison, drugs and gangs.

Interestingly, George’s social commentary is as strong on education, enterprise and the failing of schooling as it is on injustice.

We also heard from Sarah, who achieved a good degree in history but then realised she wanted to work in software engineering. A boot camp course (and thousands of pounds) later she is happy as a digital analyst at Deloitte – no thanks to her formal education. She took a risk and it paid off.

Jamie was on the books at Birmingham City until injury ended his football career. School had been irrelevant to his ambitions and he left with very few qualifications. But the commitment to hard work that he had in training has now transferred to enterprise. Now in his early twenties, Jamie employs a couple of dozen of people in his Spark Education business.

These three stories are of very different education experiences. All three agree that schooling is not adequately preparing people for their likely experience in work. Demos research suggests that 1 in 7 of the current workforce are self-employed, and by 2020 this group will outnumber public sector workers.

The conference also heard from speakers from the CBI, John Lewis, Citibank and the Centre for London. The message was clear. The gap between the needs of a rapidly changing labour market and education is widening. Employers, too, need to make changes as employees want to choose who they work for as much as the other way round. As talent shortages bite, the social purpose of employers becomes more important in attracting the right people.

The notion of an empowered workforce will seem discordant against the background of zero-hours contracts, the living wage and reliance on tax credits.

However, the “sharing” economy is growing. Airbnb is now a bigger provider of rooms for travellers than any hotel chain. Car sharing is displacing car ownership and car rental in our cities, through apps such as Zipcar. Uber is in more than 300 cities and causing huge disruption to taxis. Duolingo had 50 million active users improving their skills in 15 languages less than three years after the start-up launched in 2011.

As more of us get used to earning a bit of extra money renting out a room, helping someone learn a language online and selling spare stuff on eBay, more of us become mini-entrepreneurs.

Teaching is one of the professions most resistant to deskilling by technology and offers great job security as a result. For most school-leavers it won’t be like that. With a life expectancy pushing 100, they will need skills of risk-taking, resilience, empathy and creativity to prosper in their long working lives. They will need multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills. They will have several careers and multiple sources of income.

The title of the Friday’s conference was “Seizing the Agenda”. Whole Education is a network of strong schools that believe “that all children deserve an engaging and rounded education that supports academic achievement, but also develops the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to flourish in life, learning and work”.

At the end of Friday a consensus was emerging: the ongoing narrowing of the curriculum to a purely academic one needs to be challenged. We will see whether the school leaders present decide to seize that agenda.

Jim Knight is a former schools minister and is TES Global's chief education adviser 

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