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If We Are Building for the Future, Let's Plan for the Future

Delegates at the Schools & Academies Show in London on 1st May were treated to a passionate and lively discussion between senior industry leaders and bright academics on the future of the education sector. Presided by the charismatic Carl Ward, chair of The Foundation for Educational Development, the panel session, “If we are building for the future, let’s plan for the future”, focused on what the industry can learn from today’s challenges to create a brighter tomorrow for education. 

Sitting on the panel were Sir Anthony Seldon, historian and head teacher at Epsom College, Paul Drechsler CBE, president of the Society of Chemical Industry, Dame Julia Cleverdon, vice chair of the Fair Education Alliance, and Leila Lai, co-chair of the FED Learners Council.   

Ward opened proceedings by saying he was pleased to be joined on stage by “such great thinkers for our education system” and that “long term-ism in our education system is needed significantly”. He then asked the panel for their opening thoughts: 

Drechsler was first to address the audience: “Firstly, I must say, well done on coming to the most important conference in London this year… It was my great idol. Nelson Mandela, who said that education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world. As somebody who has been involved in all sorts of businesses, I'm absolutely convinced that the world is bursting with fabulous opportunities and huge challenges in the future - and the only way we can meet those challenges head on is through brilliant people. Brilliant in terms of what they have learned, and brilliant in their ability to collaborate with others. I think science is the most powerful tool we could use to address these challenges.” 

Seldon then explained the four things that he believes needs to happen. Firstly, he stated the need for “long-term thinking”, explaining that the sheer number of education secretaries over recent years has not been healthy for the sector. Secondly, he stressed the need for a clear plan. “Technology with wellbeing” was third: “We are only going to win the AI battle if it is used in the interest of all people and not just the privileged.” Finally, there needs to be genuine breadth, from “cradle to grave”. “It’s so shallow and tight and narrow and limited, what we mean by education,” he said. 

Cleverdon agreed with previous speakers, highlighting the need for a long-term plan to support the young people across the country. She explained that having 10 education secretaries over 14 years was a “political nightmare” and that “all they mind about is a lunch, a launch and a logo”, presenting an “initiative that will last no time at all, and has not been thought about in any shape or form.” However, she added she has hope for a long-term plan being set for the future.  

Lai added a learner’s perspective on the need for long-term planning. Based on her own and her friends’ experiences, she didn’t believe that sixth form had prepared them adequately for their university degrees, whilst university degrees had not prepared them well enough to enter the job market. “This is a big reason why a lot of us are choosing to do a master’s degree straight after our undergraduate studies.” 

Ward highlighted his own frustrations whilst working in his role as a chief executive of a MAT in Stoke on Trent. He said: “What drove me - along with colleagues - to try and do something about our education system in the way that we are was the absolute belief that long-term planning did not exist in our education system.” Ward added there had been countless times his long-term visions had been “unpicked” by decisions made by government, making it harder for him to do what he believes is best for his students. 

Ward then asked members of the panel to share their views on the need for a potential governance system for education, which is currently being proposed and supported by some groups, including the The Foundation for Educational Development. 

In response, Drechsler said: “I've been in boardrooms of businesses. I've been in boardrooms of charities. I've been in boardrooms of not for profits. I've been in boardrooms of universities. I've never been in any boardroom where you didn't have a long-term plan for your enterprise or organisation. Nobody in the world runs anything without a long-term plan. Therefore, we need to bear that in mind. Secondly, you have to decide as a nation that education is an absolutely key priority. As a result of that, if it is a priority, then you need a plan. By definition, that plan has to be long-term.  

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“I am very firmly of the view, that given the way our politics works… we need an independent governance model, an independent leadership group, to provide guidance and oversight on strategy, on standards, and listen to a much wider network.  

“Let's be realistic, whether you're Labour or Conservative in 2025, this country is broke. The public services are in dire straits. Most of them are under resourced and underinvested, so there is no money. Therefore, never will it be more important to make really tough decisions, really tough calls of priorities. That's why I think an independent body, or an independent advisory board, would be an immense help to a secretary of state for education, and the sooner it happens the better.” 

Cleverdon agreed, adding, “I certainly don't think we can continue as we are”. “In general, my experience in life in giving people decisions to take, they will make better decisions closer to the action. So, my instinct at the moment is we should have a shot to put a stakeholder group together. If we can't, because of all the challenges, then I would put much more energy and power into getting devolved responsibility for those who have got the skills and are increasingly close to the issues of those of the workplace, the workforce of the education system, the needs of young people in their area.” 

Seldon was asked by Ward for his opinion on the subject and whether a chief education officer for the UK is needed. “I think it is, very much,” he responded. 

“Why has it gone so wrong for so many education secretaries? It’s because they're not appointed because they care for children or education, or just young people in general, they are appointed because it is politically convenient… They make decisions for tribal ideological reasons rather than the interests of young people.  

“We have a third of young people who finish formal education who are failed by the system. It is not the children who failed, the system has failed to find out what they are talented and good at. If you tell anybody that they're a failure they won’t be able to work properly, they'll have a low self-esteem, low self-image. The education system has to have a long-term plan.” 

Seldon emphasised the need for the system to work better for every child, to discover their strengths and what they are passionate about – and by doing this, they’ll go on to be good citizens. “We have failed, and it is criminal the way this has carried on,” he concluded. 

As the end of the session approached, Ward asked the panel for final thoughts.  

Drechsler was first to take the mic: “Each and every senior business leader in the room is unambiguous that the number one issue that has to be addressed for an education system in the UK that delivers opportunity for all, is brilliant teachers in every classroom in every school… If this is not the most important profession in Britain in the 21st century, what is?  

“The only way you can have a successful nation, a successful business or a successful organisation, is if each and every person in the room is liberated to be their best.” 

Seldon followed the same train of thought. He said: “Let's get back to what it means. Education means drawing out what's inside everybody. Every child is unique and has unique qualities, passions, interests and gifts. So, the job of a good education system is to channel what is best to encourage and develop - and we have to do that for everybody. Then we will get the best people in society and the best people in the workplace, the best country, and more people would want to come back and be teachers.  

“Why would you want to be a teacher if your autonomy and your creativity is stripped out of you because it's so formulaic. Let's get back to passionate teachers. I think that each and every child, and especially the most disadvantaged, who have been failed by the system that we have, is totally unnecessary. Ultimately, it's not even about money. I think a chief education officer would be a brilliant idea and channel all of that.” 

Drawing the panel session to a close, Cleverdon said: “I have some hope that leadership will get us out of the situation that we're in… we now have one million children destitute in Britain. That cannot be the way in which we build a long-term competitive future for this little, tiny island.” 

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