It’s an opportune for school leaders to set the narrative for our education system – our future society depends on it. by Michael Pain, Director, Forum Education
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
When I speak at headteachers’ conferences about the world children will potentially be stepping into in fifteen years’ time or so, people really begin to listen. This isn’t, I’m afraid, because I take out a crystal ball and begin to hand out future lottery results (if only!). It is because it is a topic that speaks directly to most heads’ values and motivations. It is also because – quite scandalously – it is a discussion that so rarely takes place within our education system. That is the fault of those who have set the narrative in education for so long and not school leaders and teachers.
It is deeply frustrating because ‘futures-thinking’ – as this process is often described – is essential for understanding the world our children and young people will inherit and, therefore, how we best prepare them for it. It is in my view the true core business of system leadership in education. Yet ‘futures-thinking’ has – until now – rarely got a look in to the education narrative in this country. I believe this is, slowly but surely, beginning to change – not least through the opportunity multi-academy trusts have to set a vision for their schools, communities, staff and pupils.
“Futures-thinking is in my view the true core business of system leadership in education.”
For years now I have witnessed how leadership conferences and meetings have too often been dominated by discussions around the latest changes (or fads) in government policy. Indeed, my main motivation for establishing Forum Education’s national new headteachers’ conference has been to inspire new heads to see what is possible if you rise above ‘the noise’ and maintain focus on the deep potential (and moral responsibility) within the job to prepare children to thrive in the lives that lie ahead of them. As we prepared to launch the new heads conference three years ago, many new heads told us that they were quickly becoming swamped by the ‘tyranny of stuff’ and were struggling to find the space to do that visionary thinking on behalf of their schools and children. I wanted to give them the space to begin that thinking and also the confidence to stick with it.
This, I’m afraid to say, is still counter-cultural. Many headteachers events I have recently attended have been dominated by issues such as the latest definition of ‘coasting schools’, amendments to the Ofsted framework, the need to prepare for new floor targets and performance measures, and a new funding formula that hasn’t actually been agreed yet. If you step back, whilst some of these issues do have some indirect bearing on the quality of children’s learning, most of this is completely futile when you consider what actually matters – how do we prepare children and young people for the world they will grow into? Spending time discussing the details of progress 8 does not take us there.
Don’t misunderstand me. I recognise the business of ensuring standards and accountability is an important one. It’s just the endless focus on the means diverts us away from a meaningful conversation about the ends and that frustrates me. Such has been the state of the educational discourse in this country for some time now. The amount of time and energy spent discussing and debating grammar schools last year typifies how the discourse is predominately defined by political whims, kneejerk reactions to scandals, and the latest fad dreamt up by a politician or special advisor who wants to ingratiate themselves to their party. The closest we seem to get to futures-thinking – on a national level at least – is when a minister writes in their foreword to the latest white paper that we need an education system that will enable us ‘win the global race’ – whatever that is! (ps. I’ve put a bet on just in case).
“There is no national conversation around how we prepare children for the future.”
There is certainly nothing in what politicians say or in the guidance that government produces that provides any clue to the core objectives of our education system. There is no national conversation around how we prepare children for the future. Indeed, I recently read hundreds of pages of guidance on setting up MATs, which did little to explain or reference how MATs can use their freedoms and autonomy to prepare children to thrive in the world they will inherit. I’m deeply encouraged by the number of MATs (certainly those we are working with) that are starting and progressing along their growth journeys with a focus on ‘the why’ – asking themselves what it is that becoming a MAT should ultimately achieve for children and making sure that defines everything they do from then on. On the other hand, I am seeing many schools and new MATs quickly becoming drowned in mechanistic discussion about MAT organisational development – fundamental stuff, but surely this must first be contextualised by how the move to MAT status is going to benefit children?
Yet why should we expect anything else? For too long the profession has been buffeted around by distractions or initiatives that take our education system no closer to the real issue at hand. And the real issue at hand is this: How do we prepare children to thrive amongst the new dynamics, challenges, threats and opportunities in our rapidly changing world?
What are those new dynamics? Well, this is the substance of what is a very big and important conversation and a short article can only take us so far into this, but here are a few considerations….
There are now very few jobs for life and the concept of what we consider to be a ‘job’ will change dramatically. Most of today’s children will not enter a traditional jobs market when they reach adulthood. It is highly likely they will be self-employed, and, even if they aren’t, they will frequently be switching between jobs and will need to make at least one major career change in their lifetimes. Most will be faced with unemployment at some point in their lives. Most will certainly experience times of deep financial and career uncertainty. They will need to learn and relearn new skills in order to compete and attain work – quickly and tenaciously adapting to a society and an economy that is itself constantly changing. It is also likely that our children as young adults will be unable to depend very much on a public sector that will be feeling the affects of decades of financial constraints. There will be plenty of opportunities and few safety nets. Where is the national conversation around how we prepare children for this world?
Financial literacy will become even more paramount. In a context where young adults are struggling to save money, get onto the housing ladder, and are increasingly responsible for putting aside money to pay their taxes and national insurance contributions directly, being able to manage money with care and confidence is essential. Many young people will need to take on debt to attain an advanced education, and – as they enter their adult lives – almost immediately need to make investment choices around which course or programme will deliver them value for money and a future that meets their social, emotional and financial needs. A flexible employment culture will also place a premium on financial know how, not least when times get tough and the state is unable to support to the degree it has historically. How are we preparing children and young people for this?
“We will need to ensure children and young adults can be masters rather than servants of technology in a world where the depth of technological ‘know how’ is fast outpacing the ability of schools to keep up.”
Technology will become an even greater force – for good or ill. Many of today’s traditional jobs will either no longer exist or will be revolutionized by the influence of technology. Artifical intelligence will be a constant threat. Just ask the taxi drivers and insurance companies who await the onset of driverless cars! We will need to ensure children and young adults can be masters rather than servants of technology in a world where the depth of technological ‘know how’ is fast outpacing the ability of schools to keep up. Being able to interrogate technology, manipulating it to achieve new positive purposes and to add greater value to society will be an essential skill. Where is the national conversation around how we prepare children for this?
Social and cross-cultural skills will be at a premium. The largest economies in the world will be in the Far East, and a growing number of our employers, clients and commissioners of services will be based there. Currently four of the world’s seven billion people live in Asia. Meanwhile, after Mandarin, Spanish will be the world’s second most used language. Being equipped to work with and across other cultures, and understanding other languages, customs and history will give our children a clear head start. Yet where is the national conversation around how we prepare children for this?
Health literacy is another key factor. The pressures, expectations, pace and uncertainty of life in the century ahead will take its toll on those who are ill prepared or lack the resilience to manage its demands. As I mentioned, the public sector will be feeling the pinch and services to support mental health, for instance, will be minimal at best. Indeed, there is already deep and growing concern around the general decline children’s mental and physical wellbeing. The foundations for the health and wellbeing of the next generation are being laid down, and – if fragile – will be difficult to rebuild. With respect to the Dfe, government has promoted the need to build children’s resilience and character – but how prominent have these conversations been when compared, for example, to academisation discussions or the changes to school performance tables? Where is the national conversation around how we prepare children to be healthy and confident citizens?
The real issue for schools and the education is that politicians do not have the answers to these big questions. I do recognise that some of these issues are creeping onto the radar and that government has done some encouraging work in place. There are also a number of organisations that are working hard with schools to make progress on these areas. However, on the whole, politicians and those who set the agenda for our education system are too busy being busy and making everyone else busy that we can’t see the wood for the trees. The problem is that the more time and energy we expend on focusing on and reacting to ‘the noise’ that is currently created within the education system, the greater the disservice we do to children. It is time for schools and school leaders to really seize the narrative and the agenda here.
What the new freedoms and autonomies within our education system do is create the opportunity for leaders to have these more strategic, future-focused conversations and consider how they go about creating educational aspirations and solutions that prepare children as best they can. We are entering a new era in education where children’s success will depend on school leaders’ ability to think outside the box, to challenge commonly held assumptions and to recognise the power both of their immediate communities – and indeed themselves – to shape children’s futures for the better. Today, each and every school leader has more opportunity and responsibility than ever before to shape a future-focused vision for children’s learning and development. The question is are they prepared and ready to take the opportunity?
This requires some confidence on the part of school leaders. It also requires them to work with others – in MATs, teaching school alliances and other partnerships that are predominately driven by preparing children for the future rather than managing perfunctory changes in education policy. It is worth every group of school leaders asking – do you really believe that traditional agenda setters – ministers, ofsted, the national curriculum or performance tables – are really doing everything to enable you to prepare children for the world they will walk into in a decade’s time? Do they know what children will need to succeed in the jobs market (and in life) in 2030? The answer, of course, is that government is not best placed to do this – it is there to provide a minimum standard and that is all. School leaders on the other hand – working together – need to and should take the agenda much further. It requires school leaders to collectively develop and hone new skills such as horizon scanning, consultation and research, partnership working with organisations beyond education such as business and the third sector, the use of test and learn strategies to achieve evidence-based innovation, and to develop local accountability models that help to redefine what educational excellence truly is.
One of my favourite quotes about teaching is this. “Teachers are the builders of society – we build people – we build and develop future generations. There is no more important profession.” It is school leaders who should and must set the agenda and the strategy for this. That is an exciting and liberating thought. But after years of relying on top-down directives and measures of success, it takes a degree of courage.
I’ve been delighted to help a number of multi-academy trusts and head teacher groups to create these very conversations in the past year. For many they have described the process of ‘futures-thinking’ and the subsequent development of their vision and pledges to children as being amongst the most inspiration and motivating of their careers. That is because leaders and teachers are finally realising the freedom to set their work in the context it should be held. Rather than the usual political discourse and drivers snatching their attention, their work (and what they consider to be successful outcomes) is increasingly defined by their and their communities’ ambition to prepare children for the future world. Indeed, this shift in focus is far more likely to solve the biggest current threat to our education system – the challenge in recruiting and retaining great leaders and teachers to serve children.
Rather than referring to floor targets and Ofsted grades as the only measure of organisational success, children need us to be talking about how schools develop entreprise, how we can enable them to access opportunities to learn a wide-range of languages and understand and engage with other cultures, how we teach and instill resilience and adapatability, and how we ensure that children are empowered masters of technology. It is time for all trusts, schools and leaders to collectively change the discourse to what really matters.
Michael Pain regularly speaks at numerous headteacher and school leadership conferences across the country. In 2014 he established the national new headteachers conference, and has also designed and delivered a number of headteacher development programmes for trusts and teaching school alliances.
“Thank you for delivering to our ‘LeadLincs’ aspiring primary Headteachers on vision for leadership. The whole group was gripped and inspired by your session. Feedback from participants included “It was absolutely brilliant and such an inspirational start to the programme”, and from another “I just wanted to say thank you for today. I can safely say I have never come away from a ‘course’ so inspired and motivated”. It was a fantastic session to motivate a commitment to leading in education, and inspiring a passion for ambition for all children. Thank you.”
Helen Barker, Head of Kyra Teaching School Alliance