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Education change in a new economic climate

Ray Barker, Director of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) discusses some of the features and challenges of current education change.

In just about every country of the world, education is in a state of change. How can countries ensure that their education systems are fit for purpose and that they will develop citizens of the future who can contribute to economic prosperity? What twenty-first century skills are necessary as a way of ensuring that nations can emerge from global economic difficulty? Some trends can be easily identified.


One of the things that great systems increasingly do is that they set standards, for example in subject areas, and they ensure that these are globally benchmarked. We have had a National Curriculum in England since 1988 but countries such as the USA are now developing common standards for English and maths. If a child moves from one place to another, how can we be sure that they do not miss out? Of course this enables educators to track what is being learned and others can hold them accountable, and they can do this easily through the use of data – one of biggest growth areas in education change over the past few years. This has also been helped by the growth of technology. Teachers know what a child does not know and can act to deal with this. Those that have learned can be led along another learning pathway, rather than stand still or even go backwards. Data allows for personalised learning; the way of dealing with each child’s own learning style. People learn in different ways at different times and this should be acknowledged. Just following a lesson plan or a curriculum blindly ensures that not all learners ‘learn’; many will be left behind and this is now perceived as a waste of human capital.


Of course teachers make the real difference, along with suitable and plentiful resources, to the education of young people. This realisation means that countries are now having to reconsider the status of teachers and their training. In the most successful countries, teachers have a high status and are paid well, but they are also expected to achieve high standards. How can the best people be recruited? What is the best form of training? Is this in school itself or through a more traditional, academic route? Teachers are professionals and like other members of professions, they are expected to continually refine and develop their skills. Just as you would feel nervous about being operated upon by a doctor who did not know how to use technology in the theatre and had not been trained for 20 years ... so you should be suspicious of teachers who have not made the most of continual professional development (CPD). And it is the leader of a school who makes all this happen. In England, our previous government developed the National College for School Leadership, a focus for CPD for school leaders and also a place to develop qualifications for them.


Effective Government departments at the heart of education change are essential. Research on international benchmarking shows that governments who reduce bureaucracy and enable schools to function independently within a national framework are most successful. The system also needs a clear message that education failure is not acceptable. Governments also need to be clear about their education aims. Many countries now are battling with the problem of what a twenty-first century curriculum looks like. What should be taught? What skills are necessary? In some cultures they are even asking if ‘traditional’ schools are necessary.


Whatever the result, such change is not going to be easy. Education is about the culture of a country and is also about people – two of the most difficult things to change. What is clear is that things will have to change; economic necessity and the technological and communication revolution all mean that nothing stands still anymore. Successful countries need successful education systems.