Transforming education: skills over exams

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In December 2023, the House of Lords called for an urgent overhaul of education, especially at the secondary level, arguing the current focus is now almost entirely academically focused, at the expense of a broader range of knowledge, skills and behaviours

We’ve probably all thought it at some point in our education. “But how is this going to help me in the real world?” To which the usual response was almost always, “Well, it will be in the exam.” If this sounds familiar, it turns out the House of Lords is of the same mind.

It has also become clear that what is being taught is not the only issue. Our charity, Young Enterprise, was founded in 1962 by Sir Walter Salomon and was originally based on the successful Junior Achievement programme in America (now Junior Achievement WorldWide). He admired the US charity’s ability to foster work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills. Above all, he was particularly impressed by its philosophy of “learning by doing.”

What is clear from the House of Lords report is that this type of learning has given way in our secondary education system to learning by rote. Schools are incentivised to focus on a narrow set of core subjects, so pupils now have fewer opportunities to experience more practical, applied forms of learning or to study creative, technical and vocational subjects. This isn’t just the type of learning we know pupils prefer, it’s often the type of learning they excel in.

Is an overhaul of education needed?

A curriculum almost entirely assessed by increasingly high-stakes exams puts intense pressure on pupils, with many pupils not sufficiently developing the essential literacy, numeracy and digital skills that they need to thrive in the real world.

It is clear that without a focus on the application of these skills in real-world contexts, our education system has become unstimulating for many while widening the gap between the skills students possess and the ones employers are looking for.

Today’s pupils are less prepared for the world of work

A recent Teach First survey found a staggering 79 per cent of teachers believe that today’s pupils are less prepared for the world of work compared to previous years.

It is not always obvious to young people how learning to solve quadratic equations or analysing an English text may be useful or relevant to their careers, let alone to their lives in general. The good news is that embedding an applied learning ethos across the curriculum can do this effectively and in a way that works with the UK’s academic curriculum. An important report published last year by The Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) with Young Enterprise showed the boost delivering applied learning had on young people’s confidence and engagement levels, leading to improved academic results.

Another key finding in the report was the impact applied learning can have on school attendance. The UK is currently facing an urgent national crisis as the number of children missing school has soared since the pandemic, with talk from ministers of needing to rebuild the social contract between parents and schools. What about children? A report published in January by a CSJ think-thank found boosting sports and extra-curricular activities would be a far more effective way of encouraging students back into school, while questioning the effectiveness of the existing strategy of simply fining parents.

The world of work is changing, and so are the skills employers are looking for

According to statistics released by the European Union, the demand for digital skills is expected to rise more than any other skill set by 2030. The House of Lords has argued for the creation of additional pathways to support the development of pupils’ digital skills, which could be facilitated through the creation of new qualifications.

However, as we have seen with financial education, just being on the curriculum won’t shift the dial. More support for teachers to use digital tools is paramount, but so is providing support to their students to build and apply those skills in real-world settings. This principle is vital. Students using technology in the classroom is not enough in itself; they need to translate this experience through applied learning into useful and practical digital skills outside the school gates.

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Meanwhile, new research from the Education Policy Institute shows that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has grown since 2019, which is particularly prevalent among persistently disadvantaged pupils. This widening of attainment gaps shows the strong need to re-think how education is delivered to reach and engage all young people.

We know that applied learning has been shown to improve student engagement, attainment and preparedness for work. When students can relate what they’re learning to their future, they engage more; it becomes more relevant to their lives. By supporting teachers to deliver it, we can help young people to use their learning and better prepare them for a more confident and productive future.

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