Educating Asian children in ‘exam factories’ won’t equip them for the world of work

This article appeared on CNBC and the Forum Blog on 31st May 2016 in advance of the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Summit in Malaysia

Educationalists and journalists have long beaten a path to Singapore to discover its educational secrets. Children within its school system perform better than any of their international peers apart from Shanghai, according to the PISA rankings, and a whole industry has grown up attempting to decode its formula.

The city state is perhaps the world’s most astonishing story of educational improvement. Its transformation from a low skill, low paid nation with high levels of illiteracy 50 years ago to a first world economy today, with a 1% unemployment rate provides inspiration and hope for policy-makers everywhere.

But the story of education in the ASEAN region goes beyond Singapore. The legions of educational tourists would do well to extend their trip to the region’s other education systems, which have also taken giant leaps forward.

In the Philippines, basic public education has recently been extended by two years to grade 11 and 12 – finally giving the poorest students the chance to study at senior high school and go on to the best universities. Since 2010, the education budget has more than doubled, 30,000 new classrooms have been built and 43,000 new teachers hired to prepare for the effort. A bold new government voucher scheme has been introduced to allow students (where state provision isn’t available) to enroll in private schools.

Vietnam caused astonishment when in 2012 it entered the PISA tests for the first time, and returned stunning results – scoring higher in maths than the UK and the US with a ranking of 17th out of 65 countries. This from a country with a per capita GDP of only $1,600. It has invested heavily in education – making up a fifth of government spending, and shifted its curriculum away from rote learning.

But, for all the impressive progress in the region, international education rankings alone will not protect workers from the brutal forces of economic change that will sweep through the world economy over the next two decades – destroying entire job sectors, creating new ones, and demanding a constantly changing mixture of skills.

The recent Future of Jobs report published last year by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council of the same name, based on a survey of executives in 15 of the world’s largest economies, argues we are entering a Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which over 7 million white-collar and administrative jobs could disappear due to technological change in the next five years alone. New sectors – from nanotechnology to robotics to data analysis – will replace some (but not all) of these jobs.

The future economy will need strong vocational skills – which are often still treated as the poor relation to academic routes – as well as soft skills. Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google, says that “while good grades don’t hurt”, the company is looking for softer skills too: “leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn”.

Employers throughout the world report that the education system is not delivering the skills that they need. In 2015, more than a third of global companies reported difficulties filling open positions owing to shortages of people with key skills. Even in education poster-child Singapore, a 30% increase in skills shortages was reported last year: a reminder that there is more to a world-class education system than outstanding PISA scores.

We can only speculate about the skills mix that will be required in 50 year’s time – when today’s school children will still be at the height of their working lives – but the ability to adapt and learn new skills throughout their career will be as important as their core knowledge of physics and chemistry. As the Forum’s New Vision for Education report argues: “To thrive in a rapidly evolving, technology-mediated world, students must not only possess strong skills in areas such as language arts, mathematics and science, but they must also be adept at skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity.”

There are already signs that governments in the region are beginning to realize that academic skills will not be enough. Malaysia’s deputy education minister recently called for an end to spoonfeeding. While, earlier this year, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, returned from a trip to Europe and called for closer co-ordination between the economics and education ministers to ensure Indonesia has a “work-ready labour force”.

Malaysia launched the vocational education scheme 1Youth 1Skill in 2010 to provide “what industry wants”. Young people who choose this route have a higher success rate at securing jobs than graduates. Singapore radically overhauled its Institute of Technical Education (ITE) a decade ago. Previously a joke circulated that its acronym stood for “it’s the end” – the last resort for the academically weak. Today its university-inspired set-up offers award-winning programmes that attract students from around the world.

Education ministers throughout the world are rightly beating a path to Singapore’s door to find out the secrets of its spectacular success in science and maths. But, in learning these lessons, they should remember that, as far as we can tell, the jobs of the future will require flexibility, creativity, independence of thought, and teamwork – whether they are in Kenya or Kuala Lumpur. We will pay a price if we turn our schools into exam factories where these qualities have been squeezed out of the curriculum. In conversations at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN 2016 summit next week, we should remember that education doesn’t begin and end with PISA scores.