In a speech to business leaders, Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, says that A-levels are not giving today’s young people the best start for getting good jobs in the future. He calls for an independent review into post-16 learning during the next parliament, with a view to transforming school curriculums within the next ten years.
While recognising that “endless tinkering with elements of the system has left many people tired of and sceptical about calls for change”, Ramakrishnan believes there is momentum for change from employers, teachers and parents.
Narrowing options for students
Four out of five businesses expect to increase the number of high-skilled roles over the coming years, but two thirds are concerned there will be a lack of sufficiently skilled people to fill them. The National Education Union has previously raised concerns about the ‘narrowing of options available to students’, as well as a lack of resource that restricts the range of subjects schools can teach. There is also appetite for change amongst parents, with preliminary research by the Royal Society finding that more than half of parents believe young people should be encouraged to study a broader range of subjects than they currently do.
Ramakrishnan criticises A-levels as being too narrow in scope since they were first introduced in 1951, and not fit for purpose to equip young people with the skills they need in the 21st century workplace. Research commissioned by the Royal Society puts the average number of A-levels per student at 2.7, raising concerns about whether young people are leaving school with the broad range of skills needed for the modern workplace.
He says, “If we want our young people to be able to get good jobs and employers to be able to hire the people they need in the future, we need to make sure our schools and colleges are teaching the skills that will be needed. A-levels are not doing that.
“The jobs market has always changed but we are facing a new wave of change driven by technologies such as artificial intelligence. Some jobs will change, some will be lost altogether and there will be many new jobs in industries that don’t even exist yet.”
Broadening the curriculum
While acknowledging that some schools do a good job at providing a broader curriculum, the President says that “pockets of success for the wealthy elite are not good enough”.
An analysis by the Royal Society finds that students are more than twice as likely to be studying four or more A-levels if they are not eligible for free school meals. They are more than three times as likely to be studying 4 or more A-levels if studying at a private or Grammar school rather than a Comprehensive, and more than twice as likely if living in the South East as opposed to the North East. International comparisons also show that young people in countries like Hungary and Spain study a broader curriculum than those in the UK.
Ramakrishnan calls for young people to learn a broad range of subjects from different disciplines through to the end of school: “I am a scientist so you would expect me to say that everyone should be studying science and maths through age 18, but they need to sit alongside subjects like English, history, geography, modern languages and the arts as part of a new style of education that is available to everyone.”
The speech was given at the Royal Society Business Forum, a one-day conference gathering scientists, teachers, policymakers and leaders in business and industry to share their views about how the current education system prepares students for the world of work, how future jobs might demand new and different skills, and how to broaden the curriculum to equip young people entering the workforce to succeed. This is part of a longer program of work that will also seek the views of students, politicians, teachers and parents about the benefits and challenges of changing the current education system.
Speakers joining Venki Ramakrishnan at the conference include Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI, and Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer at Ocado.
Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI says:
“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.
“The growing need for higher level skills is already holding some firms back as they struggle to recruit and it’s only set to get tougher in the years ahead.
“The Royal Society is right to call for a review of post-16 education because we simply must get this right, as one of the final stepping stones into the world of work.”
Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer at Ocado says:
“If education is all about preparing the next generation for their future life and instilling a love of learning, then I believe we are failing in terms of the structure and curriculum of our current educational system. The current relentless focus on exams, tests and the regurgitation of mark schemes is consuming almost all the educational oxygen, leaving teachers with little or no time for spontaneity, for sharing their love of a subject and for just pursuing the curiosity of their students to see where it might lead.
“If we allow education to switch our students off the joy of learning, then we will do them an incalculable disservice. On the other hand, if we enable them to leave school having learnt how to learn, full of curiosity, armed with a set of future proofed skills and with a joy of ongoing learning, then they will be well equipped for their life ahead.”
Read the Royal Society's factsheet on changing education, or find out more about the Society's work in this area.
The full text of the speech is below:
I would like to welcome you all to the Royal Society for this Business Forum on the role of post-16 education in ensuring workplace resilience. Businesses have an important stake in ensuring that our education system fits the future needs of the economy and the country. But others who are concerned are teachers, universities, politicians and of course those with a huge vested personal interest - parents. Together we can be a powerful force for ensuring that our educational system meets the needs of the twenty-first century.
We need to acknowledge that jobs and the nature of the economy are changing and we need education to change too. If we want our young people to be able to get good jobs, and employers to be able to hire the people they need in the future, we need to make sure our schools and colleges are teaching the skills that will be needed. A-levels are not doing that.
The jobs market has always changed but we are facing a new wave of change driven by technologies such as artificial intelligence. Some jobs will change, some will be lost altogether and there will be many new jobs in industries that don’t even exist yet. Careers are becoming more flexible and we need to change expectations of what a person’s ‘career’, or more likely ‘careers’, will look like. Businesses need employees with a broad range of skills and experience that can help them to creatively adapt to a rapidly changing and technology-rich world.
To prepare people for this future, we need a much more flexible education system.
A-levels have been around since 1951 and other than the occasional brief flirtation with broadening their scope they have maintained their focus on a small number of subjects. A lot has changed since 1951. The Queen was still a princess, less than one in ten households in the UK had a TV, and those who did could only watch one channel. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were not born and I doubt Mark Zuckerberg’s parents were even born.
Today, our A-level system is one of the narrowest upper secondary system in the world. And it is getting narrower, with the average number of A-level qualifications per student now down to 2.7. Although A-levels appear to have served us well in the past, producing many great artists, writers, entrepreneurs and scientists, it is not clear that left unchanged, they are appropriate for the future. Nor is it clear that without change we will be able to compete in an increasingly global economy.
Our children will need to leave school with a broader range of skills and that means an increasingly rounded education all the way through to the end of school.
Forcing them to narrow the range of subjects they are studying will also narrow their skills and options at 16. This is not giving them the best start.
I am a scientist so you would expect me to say that everyone should be studying science and maths through age 18, but they need to sit alongside subjects like English, history, geography, modern languages and the arts as part of a new style of education that is available to everyone. History and geography provide context to our current situation, and anyone who has read the dreary and nearly unintelligible prose in a typical peer-reviewed scientific journal will realize that most scientists would have benefited enormously by continuing to study English instead of giving it up at age 16. Nor must we forget technical skills.
A narrow approach to education is producing students who are entering Higher Education without the necessary skills required for independent learning and research, or the ability to write and communicate.
There are those who worry that specialisation is needed to ensure depth of knowledge. However, we have evidence that breadth and depth are not incompatible and we do not need to sacrifice depth for the sake of breadth.
Education is not just the learning of facts. It is just as important to learn the skills that you will need later in life, research and experimentation, team work, problem solving and the ability to write and communicate well. These skills are not exclusive to any subject.
In the current system, there are pockets of young people who are getting the broader education that will set them up for the best jobs in the future. While the average young person is studying for 2.7 A-levels, you are more likely to be studying for three or more A-levels if you come from a better off family. You are more than twice as likely to be studying four or more A-levels if you are a student not eligible for free school meals. You are more than three time as likely to be studying 4 or more A-levels if you are at a private or Grammar school rather than a Comprehensive and you are more than twice as likely if you live in the South East as opposed to the North East. Sadly, this is all too predictable.
Pockets of success for the wealthy elite are not good enough. So change is required, but change is difficult. Although A-levels have changed little since 1951, there have been endless tinkering with elements of the system that has left many people tired of and sceptical about calls for change. However, I feel that momentum is now building behind creating the sort of system that best prepares young people for the good jobs of the future.
Behind that momentum there is consensus – we will need employers, teachers, universities, parents and the government to work together.
The reason we are here today is because employers are key to success. And you are ready to help deliver change. Nobody is better placed to understand how jobs are changing and what skills people will need to succeed in those jobs. In a report in November, the CBI stated that education and skills are consistently at the top of the priorities of the 190,000 business they represent. As they say, the reason for this is clear – education is the number one driver of productivity, business, and economic prosperity.
The good news is that four out of five businesses expect to increase the number of high-skilled roles over the coming years, but worryingly two thirds are concerned there will be a lack of sufficiently skilled people to fill them. Employers know what they want and it is not very narrow academic knowledge; nearly three quarters of businesses say they prefer a mixture of academic and technical qualifications, or that they view all qualifications equally.
Teachers are worried too. The National Education Union has raised concerns about the ‘narrowing of options available to students’. They have highlighted the decoupling of AS-Levels from A-Levels. A lack of resourcing has forced many schools and colleges to restrict the range of subjects they teach.
Some research we have done among parents also suggests a mood for change, with more than half of those surveyed believing that young people should be encouraged to study a broader range of subjects than they currently do. Interestingly, improving work experience, maths and digital skills are top priorities for parents.
There is momentum for change and we need that change in the next ten years. Our children need to leave education with the broad and balanced range of skills they will need to flourish in a changing world of work. This should start with a review into post-16 learning in the next parliament.