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Eight Measures to Transform Education

September 27, 2012

I write quite a lot about education. This is partly because it’s been pretty central to my business for the past twenty years, but also because of lessons I have learned from my own education and that of my offspring. The consumption bit is more or less over. Next week I visit the UK for my younger daughter’s graduation – a BA in music. No doubt there will be the usual silly mortar boards, and black gowns fluttering in the autumn breeze.

And I will rejoice at her overcoming the challenge of dyslexia to gain a very respectable 2.1. Just as I did when Daughter Number One got her degree four years ago.

But it will also sadden me to see the succession of beaming youngsters walking off the podium – many of them straight to the dole queue. It seems that a first degree is not enough these days. You have to differentiate yourself with a Masters, which is something Nicky will perhaps go on to do. And we’ll be glad to fund it if it helps her follow her dreams.

Dreams are part of the joy of youth, and in my humble opinion, the education industry – for that is what it seems like these days – does a pretty poor job in helping all but a select few to achieve them. I’ve felt this for a long time.

In my opinion there are few “industries” more entrenched, more full of sacred cows, more resistant to change, than education. What country in the world does not have the same ruthless process of paring down, from kindergarten to university – a system that has remained the same for nigh on a century and a half?

What other aspect of our society has remained so static over such a period? Is it because we shouldn’t fix what’s not broken? Well, I agree that it’s not broken for the tiny percentage of the world’s population that rises to the top of the academic pile and goes on to join the elite of every nation. But for the rest, yes, to a greater or lesser extend it jolly well is broken.

Here are a few ideas for reform. Only a fool would believe that such a deeply rooted system can be transformed in a generation, let alone two. But there are incremental changes that could set us on that path.

This is not an academic paper full of statistics and citations. I’m not an educationalist. Nor am I a policy wonk with somebody’s election to win. I have absolutely no axe to grind – well, only a little on that you will discover later. These are just ideas. Take them on board or scoff at them – that’s up to you. Some of them will cost money, and there’s not much of that around these days in most parts of the world. But this is a long game. Whatever we can’t do now we can do later. And anyway, if it means we have to buy a few less guns, tanks, shiny offices, airports and motorways to improve the future of our children, then I know what I’d vote for.

These ideas don’t apply specifically to one country or another. Some countries run their education systems better than others. But I know of none that have it right in all respects. Those that think they do are deluded.

Paid leave for further education

Life-long learning is, for most people, a noble ideal not grounded in reality. The truth is that most of us associate the concept with going on training courses or advanced degrees as adults, usually paid for by someone else – an employer, the state. Of course, when we think about it, we are learning all the time, through life experience and work experience.

We are not easily going to change a system whereby people only have the opportunity to stretch themselves – to take on more challenging and better-paid work – if they provide pieces of paper as evidence of their capabilities. Pieces of paper are not evidence of capability – they are pieces of paper.

In most of the developed economies governments have passed laws compelling employers to pay for maternity leave – sometimes for many months – with few outcomes for the employer beyond disruption, loss of productivity and additional cost of maternity cover. Yet there is no such legislation compelling employers to develop their workforces by allowing them and paying them – as of right – to pursue further education.

And just as the state contributes towards maternity leave, it could also subsidise education leave. I’m not about to antagonise half the planet by suggesting cutbacks in maternity benefits, even though I do believe that some European economies are starting to find the cost hard to bear. But we should remember that while there is payback for maternity leave when women return to work, there can also be also payback when people return to the workforce with new energy, ideas and confidence gained through further education.

Yes, I know that such a system would be open to abuse. But measures could include safeguards. For example eligibility rules – you do not become eligible for employer-supported education until you have worked for that employer for two years. And claw-back provisions – if you leave the company within two years of completing the education you are obliged to refund all or part of the cost of the education to the employer.

Governments spend vast sums on educating children. Yet many they fail to pay due attention to adults, many of whom only discover their strengths and weaknesses once they have left the formal education system. The result is millions of people whose potential is being wasted. With the appropriate encouragement, those people can make an immediate difference to their own lives and the success of their employers by getting the chance to upgrade their knowledge and skills.

No age limit for public schools

In almost every country in the world, governments have invested in real estate and purpose-built infrastructure for education. If we assume that most schools are in use for 40 weeks in a year, 8 hours a day, that’s 1,600 hours of use in a year. Yet there are 8.760 hours of theoretically available hours in a year. A simple calculation shows that 81% of the time in a given year, schools are lying empty.

OK, I’m not suggesting that they should be operating 24/7. But what if we declared that schools are for all ages? That they should be available in the evening for adult education – to enable people to catch up in areas where the K-12 education system – for any number of reasons – did not prepare them for work. Literacy, maths, another language, science, for example.

Teachers are not the best-paid people in the world. I suspect that many would welcome the opportunity to earn additional money by teaching, say an additional few hours of classes in the evening. And if not, what about trainee and retired teachers?

If we moved away from the idea that school is for children, and started thinking that it is for everyone, we could transform the lives of many people who missed out first time round. The infrastructure is there – everywhere. Let’s use it.

Tax breaks for technology

The standard formula for educational technology is that typically the schools take responsibility for the technology that students use in the classroom. So a child may or may not have access to a computer, depending on how well-funded the school might be. The wealthier ones do their homework on computers provided by their parents at home.

My elder daughter went to a school that uses a different model. They provided the infrastructure – the networks and the technical support. The parents equipped their children with computers – normally laptops – of a minimum specification set by the schools. Result? Less capital investment by the school, and the child uses the same equipment at home as they do at school.

Where the state is funding the school, the savings could be passed on to the parents in the form of tax breaks or, for families paying no tax, subsidies.

Schools generally do not provide children with uniforms, books, calculators and mobile phones. There are enough technology firms around the world supplying low-cost laptops for them to be affordable for all but the poorest families.

A computer is an essential piece of technology for most school students, at least from secondary level onwards. Subsidies for laptops instead of top-heavy investment in school-based computers would level the playing field between rich and poor, and bring additional technology into the homes of families that might otherwise not be able to afford it.

Life skills in the mainstream curriculum

I think of myself as a lucky person. I went to a school that did not set out to be a sausage factory, totally focused on churning out people with qualifications. In those days there were no league tables, so less pressure to produce only academic results.

At my school, you could gain as much respect and kudos if you excelled at theatre, music, art or sport as you would if you were the brightest child in the place. The values of the school reflected those of my parents, which was why they sent me there.

We had visiting speakers talking about current affairs, business and science. We were obliged to work on improving the school’s infrastructure and grounds. A generation before, the students built a Greek theatre for open-air productions. There was mentoring, tutoring, much self-study time, all designed to prepare us for the self-discipline we would need to cope with university.

It was a private school. But that was not the reason why I consider myself lucky. It was because the school aimed to produce an education for human beings, not a production line of clones with certificates. And there were many private schools even then that were overwhelmingly focused on academic results.

And yet, despite receiving an education as good as any available at that time, I still left school lacking some skills that would have served me well in the next stage of my life. For example, I was useless at managing money. I was not particularly well organised. I was confident in some areas but not in others, but with no idea why. I lacked what many people these days refer to as life skills.

At this stage I should declare an interest. Life skills are my business. But they are my business because I believe that there are skills that every school leaver should at least have the chance to understand and practice. Too often children pick them up by accident – from their parents, from friends, from life. But too often they don’t. It’s hit or miss.

I’m talking about skills that help people to navigate through life in a way that maths, reading, writing, science and even the humanities do not.

Emotional intelligence, for example – the ability to understand what prevents us from relating to other humans, to rise above an emotional response to situations, to find a balance in the way in which we manage our relationships.

The ability to negotiate effectively by understanding the principles and processes through which we reach agreements that work for others as well as for ourselves.

And there are many more. The ability to manage time and money. Understanding the difference between influence and manipulation. Understanding other cultures, and how people from other cultures behave in ways that that might differ from one’s own. Understanding what employers expect from their employees. The ability to work in a team. To manage a project. To make a decision.

If all these skills were taught in schools as a normal part of the curriculum, then surely we would be equipping our children to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”, as Kipling said.

Safety and survival education in the mainstream curriculum

How many schools teach children about the art of staying alive? About basic personal hygiene? What to do if you find yourself alone in a city, a forest or a desert? How to keep warm, how to stay cool? How to deal with a crisis?

It’s a sad fact that in most parts of the world there is no such thing as a safe environment. Even in the developed economies, danger can be just around the corner. On the streets, or even in the home. Parents cannot protect their children from every danger, every eventuality. To do so would be to cocoon them and then to set them free in the world full of fear or reckless risk takers.

In my experience, education on how to deal with the worst case is patchy at best. Often it’s left to parents and voluntary organisations like scouts and guides. You might say that it’s up to parents to teach their kids to stay safe. Except that many don’t have a clue themselves. At the moment, there is a furore in the UK about the exploitation of children by gangs of sexual abusers. Some of the kids come from “respectable” homes, and their parents knew nothing about what was going on. Police forces are coming under fire for failing to deal effectively with reported cases.

Schools often organise external visits from police and community workers to lecture kids about the dangers of drugs. Yet many of those being lectured are smiling to themselves, then heading to the streets to do the very thing they are being warned against.

The West rarely has to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes and flooding. In other parts of the world they are commonplace. In some countries children are drilled on what to do in an earthquake or a tsunami. In Japan, for example. Yet Fukushima carried off thousands.

You may think that it’s absurd to teach children how to scavenge or light fires. Yet most of us encounter extreme danger at some time in our lives, and as the planet warms up, every indicator suggests that future generations will have to deal with threatening situations more often rather than less.

Parent education

Most of what I’ve written thus far concerns schools. Let’s focus for a minute on parents.

When my kids were at school, there were some aspects of their homework where I could help them – history and languages, for example. With science I was marginally helpful – not because of what I learned at school, but because what I picked up later through personal interest. But when it came to maths, I was worse than useless. Maths was a problem for the simple reason that the way I learned maths was dramatically different to the way they did. In between their education and mine, teaching methods had changed. The kids were learning “new maths”, which made no sense to me whatsoever.

Helping parents to understand the curriculum being taught to their children – in a regular, coherent and structured way – is one measure that could improve the support they are able to provide to their children.

There are others. Is it too nanny-state to suggest that parents should go to school to learn how to help their kids be successful at school? To make it compulsory for at least one parent to attend a day’s seminar at the beginning of each phase of the education process – kindergarten, primary and secondary?

How would you enforce it? Simple. By law. And if the parent fails to turn up, the same penalties would apply as if the child does not register for school. Other sanctions could include loss of benefits (in the case of the UK, child benefit, for example).

I accept that this kind of compulsion is hardly likely to win over hearts and minds, and that it would be far better if the school were able to apply its own sanctions. But parents in most countries are subject to other legislation concerning their responsibilities to their children. Why not in this area too?

No legislation can force parents to support their children’s education. Nobody would like to see a homework police, for example. But too many parents regard education as entirely the responsibility of the school, as opposed to a partnership between school and home. That attitude is quite common in the West and the Middle East, but less so in high-growth Asian countries like China and South Korea, where parents often drive their children to excess. There is a balance, and parental indifference is as dangerous as parental force-feeding.

Regulated parent education would at least give the schools an opportunity to set expectations as to what needs to happen in the home, and to help parents understand that they can and should have a role in helping their kids through the system.

I suspect that any parent who gets to read this is committed, supportive and fully engaged with their kids’ education. But there are many who aren’t, to the long term detriment of their kids.

National standards for career guidance

Career education is another of those hit or miss affairs.

Schools are reluctant to pay for a full-time career guidance specialist. Teachers are often deputised the task, and see the additional responsibility as a burden – not what they are there to do.

Thanks to the internet, children can do much to find out about careers for themselves. So in that respect things are better than they used to be. But I am continually surprised at the absence of national and international standards for career guidance.

Here’s what the OECD had to say in a report from 2004. I have no reason to believe that the situation described in this extract is much different today :

“There is little regular and systematic evaluation of the quality of career guidance provision in most countries. Service standards for provision do not exist or are present in some sectors but not in others. Quality frameworks, where they exist, tend to be voluntary rather than mandatory, and to operate as guidelines. Users of career guidance services have a key role to play in the design and evaluation of services.

The evidence base for policymaking for career guidance service provision is very weak. At present, few governments have in hand the data needed to provide an overall picture of career guidance provision, or of its effectiveness in meeting public policy objectives. Few government ministries are able to state precisely how much public money is being spent on career guidance services and how it is being spent.

Information about private investment and expenditure in this field is not available. Collaboration among stakeholders (such as users, administrators, social partners and practitioners) at national level will help to identify relevant and useful data types and procedures for evaluating inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes for career guidance provision.

Career guidance objectives are weakly reflected in policies for education, training and employment in most countries. Given the inadequate evidence base for career guidance, this is not surprising.

Furthermore career guidance provision is often a collection of disparate sub-systems within education, training, employment, community and private sectors, each with its own history, rationale and driving forces, rather than a coherent and integrated set of arrangements. The establishment of a national forum for guidance policy and systems development, which includes both government and key stakeholder representatives such as employers and trade unions, as well as the key organisations that deliver services, is an important step that governments can take to help to focus and develop policy agendas and to strengthen policy making.”

In other words – reading between the lines of the ususal wonkspeak – it’s a shambles, and a low priority for most governments. Children are therefore reliant on unrepeatable miracles – dedicated teachers or islands of best practice that don’t get replicated or learned from elsewhere.

Why? What could be more important than giving children the chance to make an informed decision about their futures, based on objective information – psychometrics perhaps – free from parental and societal pressure? How often do misguided career decisions ruin lives, or at least waste resources?

I have a friend who spent five years at medical school, only to quit a month before his final exams. Medicine was never for him – for a start, he couldn’t stand the sight of blood! He ended up designing and creating stained glass. Whether he kept going to please his parents and only at the end had the courage to admit that he could never have become a doctor is immaterial. The outcome was five years of state-funded university education down the drain.

Not having national standards for career guidance is as bad as giving someone a car without driving lessons or a map.

Incentives for companies providing work experience

What if every employer with over 100 staff received a tax break for providing a week’s work experience to a student in the final three years of secondary education? For every 100 employees, they would receive a tax credit for taking one student. So an employer with 1000 employees would take 100 students a year. And no, being told to go to the corner of an office and work the photocopier all day is not work experience. I mean real work experience. Real projects, shadowing staff as they are doing their normal jobs and learning from them.

And what if students got the opportunity to do a work placement in a different industry sector in each of their final three years?

What if there was national recognition for each company providing mentors to school students? All it would take would be a few hours a year of online advice by a motivated set of employees – perhaps paid for out of corporate social responsibility funding.

Perhaps tax credits are not the only way of persuading employers to engage with students. Social pressure, award schemes, and the opportunity to take an early look at a potential employee could all create a head of steam for such a scheme.

Compulsion would not work here. In fact, the best way to set up a scheme would be to start small. To encourage schools to form partnerships with local employers, and experiment with models that work best.

I have provided work experience both to students in secondary and tertiary education. The experience can be rewarding for both parties. Some of our interns ended up working with us. For students unsure about their future careers, the opportunity to look at three different jobs or employers could lead to a much more informed choice.

Busting the Paradigm

And finally, how can we break the sausage factory mentality in our current education systems?

For the past century and a half our education systems have been dedicated to the pyramid model. They are designed to reward academic excellence above all other qualities. The cream rises to the top. The curdled fall away.

Our systems do not reward human qualities, only our ability to pass exams. Only recently have any allowances been made for students with special needs, such as dyslexia, autism and Asberger’s.

The certificate is everything. High grades are critical if you wish to study at a top university. Only a select few universities take the time to interview applicants. The rest select by numbers. Personal statements are the same as CVs – often they are stylised works of fiction.

And thus it is into the workplace. The degree is the first hurdle for many jobs. Only if you pass that hurdle will other criteria come into consideration – such as what kind of person you are.

Yet the brightest are not always the best. Human qualities can often outweigh intellectual achievement. Emotional intelligence is often more valuable in the long run than IQ.

And too often our educational systems do not take into account that every human develops at a different pace.  By and large, you get one shot, whether you are prepared for it or not. Few people get a second change, and even if they do, they have to run to catch up.

Our education systems can be compared with supermarkets. For every carrot that gets on the shelf – perfect size and no knobbly bits – countless carrots – perfectly edible and nutritious – are discarded into land fill or fed to animals. The product we buy is often bland and tasteless. The system is wasteful and inflexible.

How can we change it?

Only if we stop taking the easy path. If we judge people by their potential instead of their track records. If we take more factors into account than just academic achievement – values, interests, passions, creativity, critical thinking, life achievements, resilience, determination. If we give people a second chance – the opportunity to enter further education at any stage in their lives and benefit from that education at work. If we break away from the teacher-student model and increase one-on-one interaction. If we use technology for collaboration across disciplines, institutions and geographies.

Do people choose their life partners on the basis of what degree they have (or don’t have)? Some, maybe. But most choose a wife or husband because they believe that their partner can make them happy, and that they can make their partner happy. That each can give to the other, and that together they can live better lives.

How is this different from an enlightened employer, who recognises that both parties can benefit from the employment contract, and that the employee can bring value to the workplace as a human being as well as through their knowledge and skills?

So why is it that the education system filters the humanity out of the sausage machine, and focuses on the narrow spectrum of academic achievement?

And recognising that there are millions of kids across the world who will never get to university, whose parents are primarily focus on getting by, here’s something I wrote a while ago:

“I don’t have answers that will address the problem of the educational have-nots any more than I have bright ideas to eradicate poverty, disease and conflict. I also see no chance that the rigid structure of education – primary, secondary and tertiary, academic and occupational learning – is likely to change any time soon. There are too many vested interests that will work to prevent it.

But I also keep thinking about technological leapfrogging. Countries which can’t afford a traditional land-based telecommunications infrastructure, but go straight to mobile telephony, and from there to the internet. Is it possible that these countries can develop systems of education that also run parallel to the conventional structures? Systems that deliver education to the many rather than to the few without having to build hundreds of schools and universities and hire thousands of teachers?

Perhaps we should be rethinking the purpose of education, and looking to create an alternative construct that focuses on basic human needs – food, shelter, security, community – and builds from there. If you don’t understand crop rotation, how will algebra help you? If you don’t understand basic hygiene, does it really matter whether you can read or not? For most of our history, know-how was passed on via hands-on instruction, through learning by doing, not through the use of textbooks and the internet.”

We can do better than this, and we should.

I don’t have all the answers. After all, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not an educationalist. But I know a broken system when I see one.

2 Comments
  1. Andrew Morton permalink

    Lots of interesting points here, Steve – let me just address one of them:

    When you and I went to university in the late sixties, the sytem was vaguely linked to the law of supply and demand; the universities producing people who could work on a conceptual level for the professions, broadly speaking, and excellent polytechnics addressing the more vocational side of things. Recently the mindless dash for growth in the higher education sector has transgressed that basic supply and demand law and the end result is a massive oversupply of graduates.This trend has always been predicated on the idea that graduates earn more on average than non-graduates, and that may still be marginally the case, although in an economy which is now concentrated in the tertiary sector, it is hard to see where meaningful jobs are going to come from. In order to link the educational system to the world of work in a dynamic way, the first thing you need is a balanced economy, a goal towards which we seem to be moving ever further away.When I say balanced, I don’t mean it in the Tory sense, but an economy which has vision and presents real challenges in all sectors of production.

    • I agree, Andy. Singapore is often cited as a leader in demand-led education, especially here in Bahrain. About four years ago the government set up a polytechnic in the traditional sense of the word, and it appears to be doing well. In the Middle East there are similar problems of over-supply. Youth unemployment is high, and many graduates, including thousands who have been educated abroad at great expense to their governments, can’t find a job.Yet many of these economies – especially in the Gulf, are booming. There are lots of reasons for this.

      But at least the UK has a sufficiently mature economy that a degree is not the only game in town, and kids of the age of your children and mine are coming to realise through bitter experience that outside of the professions, a degree gives them little advantage, especially in terms of earning power. Here, the degree is still seen as a big differentiator. Coupled with a sense of entitlement (the government has paid for my education, now it must give me a job), the oversupply of graduates is leading to a lot of discontent.

      The machine is producing sausages nobody wants to buy. This region produces as much talent as any other, and the constant theme is “developing a knowledge economy”. But you don’t do that by churning out thousands of kids with degrees who end up working in MacDonalds. There are other ingredients that take generations to produce. And patience is a commodity in short supply. Sad, and I do believe this is a worldwide problem. Are the hundreds of thousands of IT graduates in India, and engineering graduates in China, having an easier time of it? I doubt it.

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