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What do school leaders think about building skills for the future?

We are exploring how we can better prepare young people for a world that will be very different from today. Young people need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to thrive in an ever-changing labour market and in broader society. Our research shows that as society changes, driven by key trends like increased automation, an ageing population and globalisation, interpersonal and higher-order cognitive skills will be increasingly important.

But what does this all mean for the education system now? Nesta has held a series of roundtables to find out how we can better develop these skills in young people. We are interested in skills such as problem solving, creativity and critical thinking, as well as social and emotional skills. Last week, we hosted a roundtable for school leaders and teachers to find out their thoughts on this area.

What are the challenges for schools?

In general, the teachers we met with agreed that developing a broad range of skills should be a priority for schools. However, these skills can be neglected due to a focus on attainment in the accountability system. It can be a challenge to prioritise activities or pedagogies that might develop skills like collaboration and problem solving as students are not assessed in these areas.

There was some agreement that GCSEs were not good enough preparation for young people’s futures and that teachers still ‘teach to the test’ in many subjects. A challenge seemed to be that developing well-rounded students needed to be part of a whole-school approach, which can take time. With other challenges like teacher workload, tight budgets and a frequently changing curriculum, this is not always a top priority for school leaders.

What could good practice look like?

There are some simple ways that the teachers at our roundtable suggested had helped students develop skills like collaboration. Technology was discussed as a way to help support new ways of developing skills in students, and most examples given were basic and easy to access. For example, technologies like GoogleDocs and OneNote mean students can work on something collaboratively, but teachers can see who has contributed what.

We also talked about more radical teaching approaches, like flipped learning, which puts the emphasis on student independence and creates more room for problem solving and creativity in the classroom. Teachers themselves also need to work in a culture of collaboration and development - if they aren’t supported to develop new skills, work with others and think creatively then why would their students?

What needs to change?

The school leaders were keen to involve businesses and industry, particularly when skills are seen as essential for future employment. But there are barriers to involving industry more, with a lack of understanding from some businesses of how schools work and how best to collaborate with them.

It was clear in the room that there had to be a change in policy too. It was difficult to see a way to shift how schools are developing skills without tackling the assessment and accountability system. A narrow set of measures in performance tables, and fear of Ofsted, can drive school behaviour. There was strong agreement that organisations like Nesta, alongside supporting innovative practice, should work to shift policy so all young people can leave school with the skills they need.

Interested in our work on skills for the future? Please get in touch at [email protected]

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Nancy Wilkinson

Nancy Wilkinson

Nancy Wilkinson

Senior Programme Manager, Education

Nancy leads Nesta's work on technology and education, overseeing a partnership with the Department for Education to help schools make more effective use of technology.

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