Author Mark Richards

A new academy is opening in London. But is it the job of the private sector to teach us the skills we will need in the future? Should that not be the work of our schools?

Google is opening a school. No, they are not setting up a government-backed academy, free school or university technical college. They are, though, going to teach us technical skills.

They are opening a 40,000 square foot space in Victoria designed to give anyone – from school children to CEOs – training in modern digital skills via input from Google staff and other industry experts. How much are lessons? The training will be free.

The opening comes in London Tech Week at the same time as the company is ploughing £1bn into a new headquarters building on King’s Cross – due to open next year and scheduled to create 3,000 new jobs by 2020.

Brexit or no Brexit, Google clearly see the UK as the place to invest: UK managing director Ronan Harris says,

“London’s ambition to grow, harness new technologies and build the best and brightest companies has been a constant over the last decade.”

London to become a ‘smart city?’

…And it appears that the London tech sector will get all the help it needs from London mayor Sadiq Khan, who wants to turn London into the world’s leading ‘smart city.’ He said,

“The potential for cutting-edge technology to tackle a host of social, economic and environmental challenges is immeasurable. For air pollution and climate change to housing and transport, new technologies and data science will be at the heart of solutions to urban challenges.”

So three cheers for Google. But surely it begs a question: is it Google’s job to teach us the technical skills we need today? Or is it the job of our education system? Surely the schools need to prepare their pupils for the world of work?

Is our schools system out of date?

As Google’s own blog says,

“Today schools need to prepare students for jobs that have not been created, using technologies not yet invented to tackle social problems we cannot imagine.”

And yet here are my children coming home with more or less the same homework I did 35 years ago. ‘Discuss the effect the prophecies of the witches had on Macbeth:’ I should have kept my essays…

What the UK needs is not a new way of testing what we are learning, but a new way of learning. We have written many times on this blog about the gap between the 20th Century and the 21st – about a 20th Century tax system trying to cope with 21st Century working practice, about a 20th Century high street failing to cope with 21st Century shopping habits. But nowhere is this gap – chasm is probably the right word – more evident than in education, where we are teaching 19th and 20th Century subjects to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

Is our education system out of date?

What are the key workplace skills that will be needed in the next five years – a period which will bring us machine learning, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics? Not to mention autonomous transport – those self-driving cars and Budweiser deliveries without a driver.

Skills the World Economic Forum recommends

A report for the World Economic Forum that at the key skills that would be required: top of the list were complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Further down the top ten came emotional intelligence, negotiation skills and ‘cognitive flexibility.’ In short, it is going to be about working with other people to solve problems, not sitting in your bedroom, revising in splendid isolation.

Which begs the question, is our current school system fit for purpose? There has been a huge controversy regarding Michael Gove’s reforms to the examination system when he was Minister of Education. This is a non-political blog so I shall make no comment on those reforms but, rather than looking at how ox-bow lakes and coastal erosion are examined, should he not have examined whether they should be taught at all?

‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and feed him for life’ is so well known that it is almost a cliché. But could we not adapt it to education? Teach a boy about ox bow lakes and you teach him to answer an exam question. Teach how to think and you teach him how to answer any question. And hopefully – how to be useful to any company or organisation: unless it is a Geography department…

When I was a lad…

When I think back to my own class in secondary school, two people have been really successful. One became a product designer, one a graphic artist: both now enjoy international reputations. School – it was an old-fashioned boys’ grammar school – paid little attention to them. They could draw, but they would never amount to much. The school valued the boys that played rugby and cricket; that were going to into the professions. They have without exception ended up as building society managers or small, local solicitors.

What was the key skill that the two successful ones managed to keep? It was their creativity – whilst the education system was crushing it in the rest of us. One of the most watched TED talks is this one from Ken Robertson and it asks that question: do schools kill creativity? It was recorded in 2006 but in my experience, as a parent, it is even truer today. The schools are obsessed with league tables, with ‘value added.’ Perhaps we should look at this school in Germany, where there are no grades, no timetable and the pupils motivate themselves.

Children succeed almost in spite of the education system. How many successful people today say, ‘I could not wait to leave school’ or ‘I spent my time looking out of the window?’ Not just Steve and Rich from my class, but Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. Some chap called Simon Cowell also dropped out of school at 16. Watching this clip, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea…