‘The Gradgrind philosophy endangering education’… To get away from our Gradgrind focus on ‘Facts’, we must free ourselves from the single-minded pursuit of exam success, writes Vikas Pota

This article appeared in the Telegraph Newspaper on 24th November 2015:

For at least the last couple of decades, education ministers from around the world have been in thrall to a ‘back-to-basics’ educational philosophy.

They have preached the time-honoured virtues of learning times tables and to punctuate accurately, and of memorising Kings, Queens and Presidents in the order that they appeared.

They have defined themselves against the wide-eyed ‘child-centred learning’ of the 60s and 70s, in which creativity was more important than knowledge, inspiration more important than structure, and collaboration more important than competition.

Since the 1980s, a hard-nosed case against progressive education has reigned. Who has time to teach these wispy values of creativity and collaboration when students should be cramming for maths to compete with Singapore?

Why prioritise ‘soft skills’ when there is an international competitive race to be won in hard technology and science?

The back-to-basics advocates have some truth on their side. Child-centred learning did lead to a harmful abandonment of basic skills in some schools.

“Who has time to teach these wispy values of creativity and collaboration when students should be cramming for maths to compete with Singapore?”

International comparisons of educational outcomes have created a “race to the top” – a global competition in education standards that means many children are getting a better education than a generation ago.

Measures like the OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance’ index, published today, have focused minds in education ministries around the world on the importance of basic skills.

But there is a growing consensus that in rejecting progressive educational theories, there has been an overcorrection.

As Tony Little, former headmaster of Eton, and Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College, have pointed out, the side effect of the current preoccupation with hard skills (and incessantly testing children on them) is that room for wider skills – from music to art to broader reading around a subject that is not strictly necessary for exams – are being squeezed out.

Julian Thomas says the current education system was “designed for a different era”

Pressure for change is also coming from employers who think that an excessive focus on ‘hard skills’ is not creating the kind of workforce that they want. In fact, employers say that they value most the ‘soft skills’ of teamwork, resilience and creativity – precisely the values that are being sacrificed in the rush to prepare for the next exam.

In a recent McKinsey survey of more than 4,500 young people and 2,700 employers across America, Brazil, Britain, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, some 40 per cent of employers reported that they struggle to fill entry-level jobs because the candidates have inadequate skills.

The report also found that 45 per cent of young people feel that their education leaves them unprepared for the workplace.

Soft skills are likely to only become more important in the future jobs market. As Andrew Mcafee, co-director of the MIT initiative on the Digital Economy, says, we are now entering the “new machine age” in which machines have skills they never had before.

Technology will cut a swathe through white-collar jobs in the next 50 years, just as it has through blue-collar jobs in the last 50.

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University argue that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47 per cent of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted – including in accountancy, legal work, and technical writing.

Patrick Allen as Gradgrind in Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1977)Patrick Allen as Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1977)  Photo: Rex

As Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent book making the case for liberal arts education, while robots have taken over the role of making trainers, the ‘value added’ is still the work of people with ‘soft skills’. A $5 pair of trainers becomes a $75 dollar pair of trainers through the work of those who know how to market, design and brand them.

The World Economic Forum in its vision for how to prepare young people for those jobs not taken by machines recognises that critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity will be essential.

The new world of rapidly changing and varied work will require a workforce who can thrive in the face of constant change and frequent failure.

Business is not waiting for education to catch up. Siemens in Germany takes trainees and “future-proofs” them by teaching them soft skills such as team work, how to divide tasks efficiently and problem-solving – as well as ensuring that their literacy and numeracy skills are improved if necessary.

“The new world of rapidly changing and varied work will require a workforce who can thrive in the face of constant change and frequent failure.”

We are in danger of turning our schools into institutions based on Mr Gradgrind’s philosophy in Dickens’s Hard Times: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

The world of work in which today’s school children will enter will be rich with possibilities – but if don’t widen the skills that children are taught in schools, then we are not just giving young people an unnecessarily impoverished education, we won’t even be preparing them with the skills necessary to make their living in an ever-more competitive world.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation