February 2019 saw two particular events making a case for a change in our education system.

A science teacher with two students

February 2019 saw two particular events making a case for a change in our education system, showcasing a growing trend amongst teachers who are focussing on developing skills for future careers.

The first event, the Royal Society’s Broad and Balanced Business Forum was looking at post-16 education. We heard from the President of the Society calling for significant change and vocalising what teachers already know – if careers are changing then the education system needs to keep up – with emphasis placed on giving our students experience of data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

One of the guest speakers, Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI added to the call for reform:

“In the face of rapid changes to the world around us, from globalisation to automation, the need to best prepare our young people for work has never been more important.”

Attending this event were a number of teachers from the Royal Society’s Schools Network. In terms of what they themselves are doing to give their students access to a broader experience, examples include visits to companies, use of the local business community to do mock interviews, careers fairs, talks, Saturday club for Girls in STEM (focus on Engineering, welding etc.) and work experience. One teacher shared their schools’ initiative of surveying the parents of each year’s new intake to identify business leaders in the community for work experience opportunities. Another teacher spoke about a long-established practice, by one of their major local businesses, of requiring its graduate intake of engineers to go into schools and colleges and do outreach work to promote STEM study, conducting experiments, setting challenges and giving one-to-one mentoring support to help students to plan their futures and set goals.

Some excellent initiatives certainly, but at the same time, schools also reported what I suspect to be a common theme across the country where there is no interaction, as local industries and universities seem reluctant to engage.

Our teachers were asked about whether they shared the Societies view that post-16 education was in need of reform. Whilst all of the teachers present agreed in principal there were some salient points raised:

“We need to beware of over-focusing on skills ignoring the power of fundamental academic knowledge”

“Teachers are heartily sick of imposed changes that require a massive investment of time to embed and do nothing to improve the quality of educational provision. The idea of freeing up teachers to respond to the interests of their students, to be inspirational subject specialists who can explore favourite topics and instil their passion, help young people to investigate cross-curricular projects over a longer timescale, without the need to cover a prescribed syllabus and train students to pass formulaic exams would be liberating.”

“The funding crisis in schools and colleges means that marginal subjects are cut or lost from the curriculum narrowing breadth.”

At the Forum event we heard from business leaders and employers discussing the barriers to engaging with schools. Our teachers had their own thoughts as to why collaboration wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Their answers reflect those of many teachers across the UK: staff time, cover costs, finding suitable times that suit both schools and businesses across the year, paperwork required to facilitate activities, time pressure to cover the curriculum, perhaps a perception that the investment of time and engagement with schools on the part of businesses doesn’t have an obvious benefit for them in terms of business opportunity and travel costs.

One factor that was mentioned numerous times in the workshop sessions was that there is a clear misunderstanding between the needs of industry (and by that I mean the restraints, time pressures and requirements that they face in order to facilitate collaborations with schools) and the needs of schools – basically neither party fully understands what each other needs. The Careers and Enterprise Company are working hard in this arena to support the needs of both teachers and employers to make these collaborations seamless.

Our teachers made reference to the fact that young people have little time and space to be creative, to develop transferable skills, alongside well-developed digital competence. It was recognised that schools and teachers are not always well-placed to teach these digital skills and provide exposure to the latest technology and its capabilities.

At the launch of National Careers Week (NCW), there was also a call for greater collaboration between industry and schools and there were some excellent examples of collaborations already taking place. One of the founders of NCW, Andrew Bernard, has made a call for a national scheme to ‘send the ladder back down’ having at its core a responsibility placed on anyone aged under 30 with a permanent job to spend at least 2 days annually working on schemes to support young people locally. The NCW initiative has gone from strength to strength over the past few years and if the myriad of examples on Social Media are anything to go by there is clearly a profound dedication from UK teachers to give their students’ experiences within and beyond the curriculum.

The Society is now looking to develop a set of case studies to demonstrate that delivering a broader curriculum is a feasible goal over the coming years.

Read our factsheet to find out why the Royal Society thinks UK post-16 education needs to change, and the factors that need to be considered.


  • Jo Cox

    Jo Cox