‘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

Is the UK a corrupt nation?

That corruption in India is an issue is not news to anyone. Just look at the news headlines being generated by Anna Hazare’s attempt to reshape the Lokpal Bill. You see scores of everyday people piling in behind this, BUT…

What I’m dismayed about is the manner in which big business has keep out of the fray. In a country that accords celebrity status to the likes of the Ambani’s and other businessmen / promoter families, why is there such a deafening silence?

I’ve often canvassed opinion on the issue of corruption in India, and the overwhelming opinion of businessmen is that paying people off is justified as long as it progresses their matter! It’s the cost of doing business in India.

Aggrieved that I’m accusing their country of being a shady place, they quickly retort by asking rhetorically whether our business practices are cleaner and cite examples such as BAe systems case dropped by the Labour government in the national interest. Or more recently, the hacking scandal that’s engulfed the media industry. They also cite the parliamentary expenses scandal as another example in which the UK is as corrupt a society as India.

So, what’s your view?

Let’s not forget they fought for us

Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistani cricketer turned politician – Imran Khan – captured my attention today, maybe, for the first time. Perhaps, it was to do with where I was stood whilst reading my Twitter timeline, which included her musings. Let me explain. Her tweets read:

“Helping my boy with his GCSE choices- Sciences (Biology, physics, chemistry) are obligatory. History and geography are not.”

“Ofsted found that England is the only country in Europe where children can stop studying history at the age of 13. #harrumph”

“Last year more than 100 state schools did not enter a single candidate for GCSE history.”

I was reading this whilst stood in the spring sun at the top of Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace, where the Commonwealth Memorial Gates were erected nine years ago to pay tribute to the sacrifices of volunteer soldiers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and other Commonwealth countries.

Having lived in London for many years, I had walked and driven past these Memorial Gates many times, but never once had I stopped to take a closer look. Baroness Flather, who worked tirelessly in making sure this memorial was erected explained:

“It took over fifty years after World War Two ended to build a lasting memorial to honour the five million men and women from the Commonwealth nations who volunteered as part of the British Empire in both world wars.

As someone who’s clear about his identity being British, a sense of sadness swept across my face when I heard the Gurkha bugler play the Last Post whilst reading Jemima Khan’s tweets on the uptake of the History GCSE.

I’d like my kids to learn, along with the oft-narrated stories about the Great Wars to learn about the sacrifices made by my ancestors, without which we may not be enjoying the lives we lead today, which leads to the larger point that if children don’t understand any history, how can they comprehend the world?

Please make a point of visiting the Memorial Gates on your next visit to London. You can find out more here: http://www.mgtrust.org/

There’s cows on the roads!

Ever since my kids were born, I’ve wanted to take them to India – the land of my ancestors. Partly, as I wanted them to connect at an early age with their heritage, and partly as I think they’ll be better equipped for the future if they start understanding the nuances of India – a country that everyone’s accepted as being central to global prosperity in the future.

In their lifetimes, they’ll see massive change. The centre of gravity will shift from Europe & North America to India & China. Given their obvious link to one of these future superpowers, our purpose was to introduce them to the sights, smells, and joys of our motherland.

So, we took them to Mumbai – home to the Indian film industry, commercial capital of India, and a bustling metropolis that is, arguably, the most outward looking of all Indian cities where their eyes came alight with – not the razzle dazzle of neon lights – but by seeing cows, goats, and pigs sharing the roads with the human race and by witnessing the sheer number of people on the streets of Mumbai.

Although I say it in light jest, it’s an important lesson that they realize that a civilization as ancient as it is, respects & shares with others, and that the concept of private space is (a luxury, and) perhaps, unique to the western hemisphere.

Along with the (rather, costly) saree shopping we had to endure on this visit; on New Years Day, we took the opportunity to visit a community school run by a NGO called Pratham in a Mumbai slum. I’d heard and read a lot about their stellar work, but visiting projects such as the ones we did reminded us that India may be a wonderfully colourful, vibrant, and hip place to be but there’s absolutely no escaping the fact that India is still home to a third of the world’s poor.

Cars, scooters, and rickshaws not only share roads with cows and other animals, you also visibly see the increasingly affluent sharing their immediate vicinity with some of the poorest people on the face of our planet.

My kids visited a crammer class of 20 students aged 7, who all sat cross-legged on the floor in a one room building with a teacher who used a blackboard to coach them on how they could attain a 80% pass rate for an exam, which if they did would provide them with 750 rupee (just over £10) scholarship to study further.

We worked our way through the slum – with open sewers, noisy workshops, and a dhobi ghat, to visit a room that also doubled up as a community library, which had fewer books than, not our local school library, but the books on the shelves in my children’s bedrooms! It may have been woefully inadequately resourced, but what came through was the immense pleasure of the children’s faces from being able to read the few books that they had at their disposal. With every page they turned, you could see their minds working overtime to grasp and understand what the author intended.

Lastly, we visited another home, where 20 children aged 2 – 6, who had never gone to school, were able to say the days of the week, read an early stage book, and respond in English to us.

All of this served to bring to the fore not only that we’re materially better off and have comforts that so many don’t, but the fact that there’s an entire generation that’s young and hungry to succeed. They’re going to take every opportunity that comes their way to improve their lives.

Economic forecasts show that as a result of various factors, primarily due its very young population, almost 25% of the world’s workforce will reside in India, not in 50 years, but in the next 15 years – in our lifetimes!

The basic message that we want our kids to recognise is that they have an inbuilt advantage, which they would be wise to embrace given the strides that India’s going to be making. Their economic well being in London, will in some shape or form, be dependent on how they understand and interact with India.

As parents, my wife & I committed to doing everything at our means to ensure our children run faster than we did, have larger dreams that we had, and in all are able to stand strong, not on their own, but realizing they belong to an increasingly interdependent and connected ecosystem – on in which they understand that their actions can have a major impact on someone else’s prosperity and vice-versa.

Whilst, I’ve focused on the material benefits of a relationship with the Indian subcontinent in this post, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that’s all India offers for the future. It was Mark Twain who aptly described India as “India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only”, meaning that her ancient traditions, religious practices, philosophical outlook could perhaps address and teach us how to be better people and, just perhaps, answer the mother of all our questions – “what is the meaning of life”.

My daughters are way too young to grasp such issues, but, I hope that as a result of the connection they made in their 2010 Christmas break, they’re able to run that little bit further, climb a bit higher, and dream a bigger dream.

Kingfisher Airlines – all hype, no substance.

Seldom do I use this blog to register my dismay about things, but I wanted to let you know about the recent Kingfisher flight that I took for my family vacation to India from London.

No one can fault them for the severe snowfall we had in London in the week preceding Christmas, however they need to (a) sharpen up their communications, (b) be more honest & transparent with their customers, and (c) provide an agreeable standard of customer service.

Let me cite some examples:

On the day of the snow, all newsreports said that Heathrow was shut down, however the Kingfisher website showed the flight as being scheduled. So, after hanging on the phone for over an hour to their call-centre, we made our way to Heathrow as instructed by their operator. On arrival, I was totally dumbstruck with the mass of people in Terminal 4. Literally, there wasn’t an inch of floor space that you could occupy.

Having witnessed the scene, it was obvious to me that the airport would need to be closed, but just to check, I spoke with the Kingfisher representative at the check-in zone, who after being surrounded with the chaos around them for the whole day, suggested we check in as there was a “good chance” of us leaving, despite the fact that the plane meant to be taking us to Mumbai had been diverted to Brussels and in all probabilities wouldn’t land or take off from Heathrow that night!

Anyone in their sane mind could see what was going on around them. So, I quizzed another representative who admitted that their instructions were to encourage passengers to check in, despite knowing that they’d be nowhere for them to go. Pushing a lie is simply not acceptable or honourable.

Thankfully, we didn’t check in and made the decision to return home as in my view no flights would make it out that day. When I got back home, I learnt that Heathrow had since closed, and was therefore relieved that I didn’t follow the reps advice to check in and proceed as normal through immigration, else I would’ve been stuck without my luggage or transport with two kids and four suitcases in tow.

Over the next few days, I tried to rebook our tickets, and managed to confirm some seats for travel on Christmas Day, which I was happy to do as I had come off lightly from the experience so far. Rebooking the seats was burdensome, as for the first two days, they were unable to confirm which date they could accommodate us. For those out there facing issue like this frequently, I would recommend you click on this great post to read and find out why you should opt for chartered services if you are stuck in such condition.

I tried contacting them (Kingfisher and Vijay Mallya – the guy who owns the airline) using all methods, including Twitter. But they seemed intent on ignoring me. I was irritated, frustrated, and felt I was wasting time.

What’s the point of getting onto a platform like Twitter if all you intend on doing is pushing your sales messages to customers. Everyone knows Twitter is about engagement and interaction. Customers hate it when companies push their marketing down their throats, and even more so when the tweets are simply irrelevant. Next time I want to know about Bollywood films, I’ll check your Twitter feed instead of Stardust magazine! What a total joke!

So, as I was traveling with my young kids, I specified their dietary preferences and booked kids meals for them, to find that they weren’t available on either leg of my flight! The vegetarian food they had onboard was far too spicy for a child and they didn’t have any alternatives. So, my kids went hungry.

The only hope I had was that the in-flight entertainment system would keep them occupied, but to find that it kept on freezing – not just for me but for many others – on both legs of the flight. I almost felt sorry for the staff on the plane, as they had to continuously push a lie to passengers who complained by saying that this was a one-off – as was confirmed by their stewardess who said “we’ve been instructed to say these faults are a one off”. Again, we unearth instructions from management for their frontline staff to push a blatant lie.

I booked Kingfisher on the recommendation of a few friends who often travel in Business Class, thinking that those of us in Economy would prevail of some of the luxuries, such as good food and a good entertainment system that would keep my kids occupied for the duration. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. We were let down, despite our tickets being more expensive than other airlines like Jet were offering, who I’ve always been perfectly happy with. I was suckered by Kingfisher’s marketing in thinking they were going to be better.

To rub it in, at the beginning of the journey, Vijay Mallya delivers a welcome message on the in-flight system saying that he’s instructed his staff to treat customers like his personal guests. If that’s the case, Mr Mallya, I dread your hospitality at home.

It’s known that Airlines make their money in Business & First Class compartments, but it’s sickening that Kingfisher takes “guests” in economy, literally, for a ride.

Going to India, for many, is a phenomenal, lifetime experience. They associate India with great hospitality. If you’re going to claim to be a flag bearer for India, please stop. You’re doing her a great disservice.

Kingfisher fails on so many levels. All hype, no substance. A definite thumbs down from us and from the sound of it, from fellow passengers on our flight.

Corruption in India

There’s absolutely no way getting around this issue. Corruption is a major problem in India, as it is everywhere else. In India, the issue’s been on the front page of its very watchful & critical newspapers for a very long time. In fact, some like Tehelka.com have built a reputation around exposing scams. The sheer fact is that corruption continues, and it seems not much can derail the gravy train in India.

From an international investment perspective, they all know that corruption exists. They all know that people need to be paid off or provided hospitality to. They all know the importance that the business world places in cementing its relationship with Government, so they try to replicate it – rather than take a stand as per their corporate governance rules in their own countries.

Or do they?

Evidence suggests that corruption is as much an issue in the western world as it is in places like India. In well known cases of British firms, the Government has blocked enquiries into trade deals (BAE Systems), been complicit in trying to sway deals by offering generous hospitality (FIFA World Cup bid) etc etc.

In the past when I’ve discussed India’s woes with Indian business leaders, their view is summed up in the following quote “as long as our work is done, why should we care if a margin needs to be paid”. I suspect most western business leaders would disagree with this on the face of it, but privately would concede that they’ve had to somewhere down the line compromise on their ethics.

Given that India has a free and (very) critical press, is a very (colourful) and vibrant democracy, the only hope it has of tackling this scourge, is that of inspired political leadership.

It’s fair game to be critical of Manmohan Singh, the Gandhi’s and the ruling party, as it is about LK Advani and the BJP lead NDA coalition.

What’s the point of being a man of character & integrity as Prime Minister, or having a vibrant democracy, when they keep quite on scams such as those witnessed recently – Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society, and the massive 2G scam.

One can only conclude with such behaviour that they’re on the take. India needs inspired political leadership.

Who will that be?

Should Obama expect a masala tea party in India?

Given last night’s blow to President Obama in the mid-term elections, where a handful of the much talked about ‘Tea Party’ were elected, it strikes me that his visit elsewhere, other than India this weekend, may have been (more) politically beneficial to his Presidency.

Let me explain:

1. Despite being a minority leader, Indian’s are huge fans of the Clintons. In fact, on a recent visit to the US, the sentiment expressed by several prominent persons of the diaspora pointed to their hidden hope that Hillary may consider ratcheting the pressure on Obama in the remainder of what they felt was his only term in the White House.

2. On bilateral relations, it may surprise you, but India really loves George W. Bush. For it was Dubya’s administration that allowed India to participate in the restricted super club of nuclear nations, despite their not signing important treaties on non-proliferation.

3. The civilian nuclear partnership was heralded as bringing a ‘paradigm shift’ to US – India relations – a true game-changer, if there ever was one!

Given that this is the case, what can Obama achieve:

4. Like Nirupama Rao said in her press conference, don’t expect too much apart from a structured dialogue that’s a continuation of interaction between the two sides. She’s trying to manage expectations, and did so effectively.

5. During the US elections, Obama suffered from rhetoric flourish which is going to bit him on his back side on this visit. India’s self perception as a confident, global player is partly attributed to her prowess in the IT / BPO sector. For Obama to promise to increase taxes for companies who take away jobs from America was a mistake in international terms.

6. America needs Indian IT firms. I don’t wish to teach you to suck eggs, but simply put Indian IT firms make American corporations efficient. Simple. So, why put this at risk. We already know that India’s Opposition Party, the BJP, intend on vocalising their views on this subject during the visit. Thankfully for Obama, they’re simply not a threat to anyone nowadays in the politics of New Delhi.

7. Given all the evidence that India’s on the rise, I don’t think that the Indian’s will treat this visit like they did David Cameron’s. The UK does struggle to make its case to India effectively. Many captains of industry have often said that their focus, which was once on good ol’ Blighty, has switched to other places. In Obama’s case, America remains an important market today, and importantly, in the future. You can be rest assured that none other than Sonia Gandhi and heir apparent – Rahul Gandhi will roll out the red carpet for President Obama, unlike her absence on Cameron’s diary.

My prediction for this visit – apart from policy announcements on issues like defence cooperation, counter-terrorism, pacts to do with economic matters etc, unlike back at home in the US, he needn’t get upset when he’s invited to a tea party, or two.

Pratham – 33 million kids taught to read!

What a great gala dinner! Unsurpassed this year, Reita Gadkari, Priyanka Gill and their team pulled out all the stops, despite wariness amongst their core base of donors from the hedge fund / private equity world in London, they probably raised about £500K to expand Pratham’s reach in India.

Like with most such events, its difficult to gauge what the audience reaction to speeches will be, and this was no different. Yes, they were dry and long but importantly, the line-up showed the importance given to Pratham’s agenda to teach kids how to read and write in India’s back & beyond.

Of course, its common for events of this kind to have a sprinkling of star power, but Pratham – obviously not content with a few – wheeled out the biggies from the London scene, some of whom have avoided such events for quite some time.

The basic point being made, even by Suhel Seth, who’s wit struggled slightly on stage (unlike his Twitter feed), was that despite her upward trajectory, India should remain focused on delivering inclusive growth – one which takes almost 40% of its population, considered illiterate, to enjoy the fruits of India’s economic dividends in the same manner as those sitting in their ivory towers in Delhi and Mumbai.

All in all, a great effort, and an enjoyable evening.

Nee hau

After several years of academic debate and being asked to comment on the India Vs China question, I’m finally going to China.

The actual occasion is the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos event for global growth companies in Tianjin, and having looked at the participant list, we’re looking at an impressive set of people who are making strides in becoming market leaders in whatever they do.

Truth be told, I’m a little nervous about going to China – for a variety of reasons ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime – but nevertheless am looking forward to seeing what everyone’s been going on about for the best part of the last decade.
Shall blog more from there. Let’s hope twitter / fb etc all work.