Why our school system needs to change

Blackboard with the letters A B and C

Lord Jim Knight, the Chief Education Adviser at Tes Global explains how technology can help schools take a more collaborative and rigorous approach to children’s wellbeing and learning.

The statistics are clear: there has been a significant rise in mental health problems among children, with the BBC recently reporting a 50% rise in referrals to child mental health units from UK primary schools over the last three years.

What is less clear is why. There are conflicting reports about the influence of technology, disadvantage, pressures from school and home. My guess is that all of these play a role and that we are also struggling to nurture resilience in young people.  

I recently read Esther Wojcicki’s great book on raising successful children, and was persuaded by her TRICK acronym: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness are all important for helping children to cope with their lives. And yet I see less emphasis on those traits than ever, both in schools and in homes. We are bombarded with messages about how at-risk our children are; as a result their independence and our trust in them have become constrained.

This is one of the reasons why our school system needs to change.

“If our schools can do more to better equip children with the mindset and skills to face an uncertain and challenging future, then they should.”

Schools are the universal service for children. The NHS and children's services are interventions for when something goes wrong or children are unhealthy - but, sadly, funding cuts mean that they are under acute strain despite the best efforts and intentions of professionals working in them.

As a result, the onus on schools to intervene has become greater - and if schools can do more to equip children with the approach and skills to face an uncertain and challenging future, they must. 

The outgoing Education Secretary recently announced over £9 million to help schools address this challenge. The money is welcome but cannot be expected on its own to change what schools are able to do. We need to look at the school system itself.

Parents want their children to do well academically, to get a decent job, and to be happy. Employers want new entrants to the labour market to be numerate and literate, digitally confident, to have strong people skills and to be able to keep learning. Universities want school-leavers with good grades or predicted grades, and then for them to pay their fees in exchange for a qualification. Schools are fixated on meeting the needs of the latter over the former.

“With technology taking the place of many jobs, higher-level qualifications are seen to be more essential, and thus getting the grades for university is now perceived as a do or die priority.”

Children initially learn through play but this approach quickly gives way to measurement and testing. As the testing increases in intensity and pressure, the curriculum becomes narrower and more siloed. The tests use pen and paper and are taken in isolation. More and more classroom time is devoted to test-preparation and exam technique. The mindset is one of compliance, performance under time pressure, and results being everything in determining future life prospects. With technology taking the place of many jobs, higher-level qualifications are seen to be more essential and thus getting the grades for university is now perceived as a do or die priority.

Not much Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration or Kindness.

But school doesn’t have to be this way.  

Employers are abandoning graduate entry schemes and increasingly recruiting younger people.  They are growing their own talent through apprenticeships and hiring through the use of talent analytics rather than qualifications on a CV. A school system that is kinder, with a greater focus on collaborative problem-solving in its pedagogy and curriculum would give those employers what they want.

A multi-disciplinary curriculum would engage children differently. Problem-solving and learning from failure are the natural ways in which children initially learn through play; this is the basis of most games - as it is, indeed, of most of the more satisfying kinds of work. Could we not bake that into schools?

“Technology can be deployed to enhance teachers and allow them to do what was previously inconceivable.”

To date, the answer has been that it’s too hard to teach in this way and it’s not what universities and parents want. I see that changing. As parents see the growth of routes like degree apprenticeships, they will be attracted to earning-while-learning as opposed to the huge student debt entailed by the conventional university route. Universities will have to adapt or go out of business.  

That leaves the problem of how the teaching workforce could change pedagogy and assessment.

Here we see the opportunity of technology. One way to deploy technology would be to replace teachers with machines, drilling pupils with knowledge that they can regurgitate in tests in order to secure devalued qualifications. That would amount to training children to be out-competed by machines. 

Another would be using technology to enhance teachers’ work and allow them to do what was previously inconceivable.

A project or problem-based approach requires a lot from a teacher. How do you relate the learning to the various parts of the curriculum? How do you assess learning against those various elements? How do you differentiate and offer different learning resources for the different learners? How do you spot when gaps in individuals’ foundational knowledge are blocking progress?  

Thanks to artificial intelligence, all this is now manageable in a way that was previously only possible for exceptional teachers.

Machines are capable of matching to the curriculum, of matching learning content to curriculum and learners, of matching learners together for effective collaboration, and of matching misunderstanding to a missing piece of the scaffolding of knowledge. They can feed these insights to teachers alongside analytics of learners’ progress based on activity, not just answers. This will empower the teacher to use human skills to support and challenge the learner, armed with more granular understanding of where they are with their learning.

This is the opportunity we should pursue. The wellbeing crisis in schools forces us to ask some key questions of modern childhood. I hope the mental health emergency will unlock the appetite to change an outdated school system and accelerate the changes that our society, our economy and people need.

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