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

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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.

How can we end violence against schools?

This blog appeared first on the World Economic Forum’s blog site.

The Peshawar school massacre that left 132 children and nine school staff dead is a terrible reminder of the war on education that is being waged throughout the world. We are in a paradoxical time for education: a higher number of children are in class worldwide than ever before and literacy and numeracy are spreading. At the same time, we have a poisonous backlash from conservative forces that see knowledge – particularly the acquisition of knowledge by girls – as a threat to their warped religious visions. They know what we know: that education will give girls more power and opportunities in the world, which is why they will resort to such desperate measures to take it away.

From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Afghanistan to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, education has been the ground that extremists have chosen to fight on. They sow fear among parents so that they will keep their children away from school. It is an insidious tactic. Which parent wouldn’t think about allowing their child to stay at home if there was a risk that they would be targeted? Through intimidation they can achieve what they can’t achieve through their political support.

The attack in Peshawar is the most brutal manifestation of a trend that has been happening in Pakistan for decades. Teachers have been shot dead, drenched in acid and made afraid to publicly reveal their profession to the world. Between 2009 and 2012 there were approximately 900 militant attacks on schools, according to the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack. Now it is estimated that attacks have exceeded the 1,000 mark. A worrying dimension of the Peshawar attacks is that they were so cavalier, the work of extremists who feel emboldened. Unlike previous attacks, they were committed in full daylight.

These attacks have had dire consequences for education in Pakistan. Attacks on schools alone have disrupted the education of 50,000 directly, without taking into account the number of children deterred from attending by violence. Worse, it’s happening in a place where education is already in crisis. The Pakistani government spends just above two per cent of GDP on education, which is among the lowest of any country in the world. Pakistan has the second highest number of children not attending school in the world – 5.4 million according to UNESCO. Fewer than half of Pakistani girls are estimated to have basic literacy.

Failing to educate the young in a society is to see it wither. Without skills, economic development stalls, inward investment disappears, and those with the skills and opportunity migrate. Even more importantly, the lack of an educated population weakens civil society and makes democracy itself fragile. Informed democratic choices give way to populism and extremism.

Normally, when writing a blog, one would suggest a neat policy agenda that can be followed to address the problem that the writer has outlined. But violence against children going to school isn’t that kind of problem. It can’t be solved simply by a change of policy in the world’s education ministries. The obvious solutions – higher fences, security screening and armed guards – may help, but they are not going to keep children safe from people determined to do them harm. Neither should we want to turn our schools into fortresses.

We need a far deeper change: political leadership that make a secure education for all children the most urgent national priority. India has major weaknesses in its education system – and also has to deal with threats to the education of women – but has developed a new generation of leaders and a robust civil society that understands the urgency of these issues. Indian schools have problems but, mercifully, fear of terrorism is not one of them.

To face down this extremism strong leadership is required, and elites who are emboldened to make wise decisions free from corruption or intimidation. It requires sturdy political institutions that, however imperfectly, represent the will of the people. Overwhelmingly the Pakistani people believe that education for girls is just as important as it is for boys (87% agreed with this statement in a recent Pew Research Center poll), but this is not translating into the political determination to face down those who would burn classrooms and bomb school buses.

There has been no lack of opposition to the war on education. Civil society has teemed with clever photo opportunities, viral marketing campaigns, emotive film-making and celebrity endorsements to champion those who risk their lives simply to go to school. The film Girl Rising – following the stories of girls facing barrier to education around the world became a phenomenon in US schools. The #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign in response to the Boko Haram abduction of girls from their secondary school dormitories in Nigeria was shared by five million people – including the Obamas, Mary J Blige and Alicia Keys.

Perhaps most impressively of all, the cause of access to education has been gifted a once-in-a-lifetime icon in the shape of the heroic Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for blogging about her school experiences. She is now as famous as any Hollywood star. Deservedly, she has been showered with accolades for her extraordinary courage and eloquence – from the Nobel Peace Prize downwards – and regularly appears in lists of the world’s most powerful women.

But are these sentiments matched by a will among politicians on the ground to ensure that children are not cowed into staying at home? Though the international community will confer awards and issue strongly worded statements, are we doing enough to support those beleaguered governments?

Too often there is equivocation when facing down those who attack girls and their right to education. In the aftermath of the school attacks, many political, military and religious leaders condemned their brutality but failed to condemn the Taliban at the same time. It is perhaps encouraging that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised that the days of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” parts of the Taliban are over. But the verdict is out on whether the Pakistani security services will live up to these commitments.

Perhaps the unique horror of Peshawar will be seen as a turning point where the world summoned the resolve to see safe education as a non-negotiable right. The atrocity has already silenced ancient enmities. In India, there was a two minutes’ silence in every school to remember the dead in Pakistan, something that has never happened before.

How can the international community ensure this moment of collective horror results in change? Firstly, the international community, particularly the EU, provides significant assistance to Pakistan in the form of direct funds and preferential trade status. Further help could be offered that is explicitly tied to progress on the numbers of Pakistani children in school.

Secondly, backing needs to be given to Qatar’s efforts to ensure that the UN gives protected status to schools and places of education. Over the past four years, schools have been targeted in seventy countries around the world. In Syria alone, nearly 3500 schools have been damaged or destroyed during the civil war.

Some of this is collateral damage in war-zones. However, more often attacks on schools have been used a deliberate weapon of war. Killing your enemy’s children is to target what they regard as most precious. We have returned to medieval horrors that we thought we had banished through agreements on the rules of war.

Quite apart from the appalling human toll, the targeting of schools is also jeopardising the international community’s commitment to see all the world’s children in primary education by 2015. As world leaders reflect on their priorities for 2015, there is no more important priority than ensuring that the right of children to attend school safely is brought to the top of the agenda of every international summit next year. Perhaps then, some hope can come from what Kailash Satyarthi, who shared the Nobel prize with Malala, rightly called: “one of the darkest days of humanity”.

Young Global Leader announcement

VIKAS POTA SELECTED AS A YOUNG GLOBAL LEADER BY THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

The World Economic Forum & my company released this info today: http://www.gemseducation.com/media-centre/press-releases/Vikas-Pota-CEO-of-the-Varkey-GEMS-Foundation-selected-as-Young-Global-Leader-by-the-World-Economic-Forum/534

What is a Young Global Leader?

I am hugely excited and thrilled to have been selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Having had the opportunity to attend a few regional WEF summits, I’ve always been impressed with the positivity that flows out of this community, and look forward to joining it.

You can read more about the programme here: www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_YGL_Brochure.pdf

What do you hope to achieve?

I am lucky to have had the chance to build a business, work with talented people, travel, commit to making our world a better place, and, importantly, do something about it. Being selected to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders will provide me with invaluable opportunities to connect and collaborate with other people who also share my passion and goal to fix perennial issues that are solvable within our lifetimes.

The diversity of intake – from ages, professions, and countries, allows me to the chance to tap into this mix of experience and ideas, which is key to creating sustainable change.

What issues interest you?

Inter-dependence & collaboration is what creates value. Change cannot & will not come if we work in silos.

I enjoy bringing together change makers from politics, business and NGOs to solve problems that for decades seemed unsolvable.

I find that you really make progress when you bring together people from completely different worlds. Globalisation has created the possibility for powerful collaborations and I believe we have only just started realizing how these connections are going to change the world forever.

I’m trying to change the following:

1. Education – as I believe that there is no greater equalizer. I’m currently leading an effort to raise $70million to train 250,000 teachers in some of the most desperate countries of the world. The Varkey GEMS Foundation, which I am the Chief Executive of, has devised a programme that will see a dramatic improvement in classroom outcomes, which ultimately results in a more secure and prosperous world for everyone.

2. Raising the bar of government & politics – I’m increasingly troubled by the way our world is governed. At one end structural reform issues form a key area of interest and the other end, we need a more conversant electorate that demands a higher standard from its representatives. Later this year, I am launching an initiative in India that will hopefully raise the bar of politics and provide a model that many other nations can emulate.

3. How to harness the energies and expertise of those who share my world view that there are infinitely more people who want to do good in this world that those that don’t. By connecting these people no problem is insurmountable. I’ve been lucky to be part of a founding team of do-gooders, through Sewa Day, who have motivated over 50,000 in 20 countries to provide their time to either help relieve hardship & poverty, protect the environment, or to bring a little joy to those who have little. Our aim is to get 1 million people swinging into action with us within the next five years.

A quote from a wise man from India – Swami Vivekananda – perhaps, sums up what I think best: “Get up, and set your shoulder to the wheel – how long is this life for? As you have come into this world, leave some mark behind. Otherwise where is the difference between you and the trees and stones? – they too come into existence, decay and die.”

Let’s work together

I’m experimenting with all three areas, and am keen on learning what others, who may share these interests, are doing. Leave a comment on this blog if you want to share your experiences (or tweet me on @vikaspota).