In a changing and uncertain world, most of us can agree that education is one of the single most important things in society today. Aside from imparting knowledge, it shapes who we are as people. Most of the top scientists I meet have something in common – they can all tell you the name of a teacher who inspired them to pursue a career in research. This does not just apply to scientists, but also to skilled people doing completely different kinds of jobs in various professions. We all know the importance of inspirational teachers, and the transformative impact that learning can have on the course of our lives.
The Royal Society’s purpose is to recognise, promote and support excellence in science, and we want to ensure that all young people in this country have the opportunity to study the sciences from a young age. Moreover, in an increasingly technological world, we believe that everyone should have a thorough grounding in science so that they can understand both the nature of technologies and the basis of decisions taken by governments and corporations that affect their lives. In 2014, the Royal Society produced a report setting out our vision for education for 2030. That vision was for a new educational system that would see all young people studying science and maths in some form to the age of 18.
More recently, the Royal Society has been thinking about what post-16 education should and could look like in the UK in the coming years. We still strongly believe that students should be able to study maths and the sciences to 18. However, in preparing for a rapidly changing world, in which many jobs and entire industries will disappear and new ones will be created, we believe that young people who are broadly educated will be more resilient and better able to adapt in the face of these changes. Young people should study a broad range of subjects such as history, geography, English, modern languages and the arts, alongside science and maths. In an ideal system, these subjects should be taught in an interconnecting way –drawing links between themes and disciplines – while respecting the importance of subject-specific knowledge.
Teaching subjects in an interlinked way can help to highlight real-world examples and gives students the opportunity to understand how their studies apply across multiple subjects. There are those who worry that specialisation is needed to ensure depth of knowledge. However, we know that breadth and depth are not incompatible: we do not need to sacrifice one for the sake of the other. When studying a small number of topics in depth, students can struggle to see how each topic or theme connects to others. If we broaden the number of topics, students can start to see links forming between different concepts, thereby increasing their knowledge and making it easier for them to synthesise new information (Didau, 2018). Of course, education is not just the learning of facts. It is just as important to accumulate skills needed later in life, including research and experimentation, teamwork, problem-solving and the ability to write and communicate well.
In the current system, there are pockets of young people who are getting the broader education that will prepare them for the best jobs in the future. While the average young person is studying for 2.7 A-levels, you are more than twice as likely to be studying four or more A-levels if you are a student not eligible for free school meals. You are more than three time as likely to be studying four or more A-levels if you are at a private or grammar school rather than a comprehensive, and you are more than twice as likely if you live in the South East as opposed to the North East (The Royal Society, 2019). Until all our young people have the same opportunities and the same chances to succeed, we cannot be complacent about our education system, or indeed the society in which we live.
We know that schools are not exam and job factories. Teachers have the ability to inspire a love of learning that can stay with people throughout their lives. Teaching young people how to learn, and when to seek new skills, is a vitally important part of education. However, education is also essential to ensure that the UK remains competitive internationally. In a report in November 2018, the CBI stated that education and skills are consistently at the top of the priorities of the 190,000 businesses they represent (CBI, 2018). Four out of five businesses expect to increase the number of high-skilled roles over the coming years, and nearly three quarters of businesses say that they prefer a mixture of academic and technical qualifications, or that they view all qualifications equally (CBI, 2018).
This is therefore the right time to be thinking about how jobs are changing, and the extent to which education should change in response. We want our young people to be able to get good jobs, and employers to be able to hire the people they need in the future. We want future generations to have the skills and knowledge to fully understand the potential and pitfalls of new technologies such as gene editing, the use of data and AI, and the need for low carbon energy.
Research we have carried out among parents also suggests a mood for change, with more than half of those surveyed believing that young people should be encouraged to study a broader range of subjects than they currently do. Parents are also worried about the balance between success and pressure and how that may affect the mental health of young people. Some believe that in reforming the A-level system, we might also look at the need for GCSEs in a time when most people are no longer leaving education or training at 16. These points should be addressed in any review of the current system.
It is therefore encouraging to see teachers writing in this issue about how both breadth and depth can be achieved through curriculum design. Articles in the first section examine the meaning of breadth and depth in detail, mapping out the concepts and approaches underpinning curriculum development across phases and settings. Curriculum-making and delivery are explored in the second section, including articles on the purpose of the curriculum, how best to approach teaching both within and across subject areas, addressing emerging global themes through community partnerships, and approaches to the teaching of character education and mindfulness. These authors draw from a range of theoretical lenses, and put forward their own original frameworks in order to address the complexities involved in making decisions about what to teach and how to go about doing it.
Such challenges are at the heart of education, and they go to the core of thinking about a broad, balanced and connected curriculum. The final two sections look at the detail of curricular content, in and across subject areas, and how teachers can acknowledge and support student development, both through academic achievements and much more widely. Approaches to promoting a range of important competencies, such as problem-solving, meaning-making in young children and spatial ability for success in STEM subjects, as well as how to foster attributes including curiosity, engagement and motivation, are all discussed in this issue of Impact and are all crucial to ensuring that our students have the best possible chance of success in the future. There are different and sometimes competing perspectives in these pages that we hope will stimulate further constructive debate.
Teachers are the most important piece of the education jigsaw. Any change in education policy will need the input of teachers in the first instance, as well as their experience, expertise, creativity and drive in order to be a success in practice. The future success of our country and its economy depends on providing future generations with the best education they can get. They deserve nothing less.
CBI (2018) Educating for the modern world: CBI/Pearson education and skills annual report. Available at: http://cdn.roxhillmedia.com/production/email/attachment/700001_710000/CBI%20Education%20and%20Skills%20Annual%20Report%202018.pdf (accessed 15 April 2019).
Didau D (2018) Breadth trumps depth. In: The Learning Spy. Available at: https://learningspy.co.uk/curriculum/breadth-trumps-depth/ (accessed 15 April 2019).
The Royal Society (2019) Jobs are changing, so should education. Available at: https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/Publications/2019/12-02-19-jobs-are-changing-so-should-education.pdf (accessed 15 April 2019).