Lessons from the future: What lies in store for our education system in the next 25 years? - Schools - Education - The Independent

Lessons from the future: What lies in store for our education system in the next 25 years?

Dr Martin Stephen, who has just retired after 24 years as one of Britain's leading headteachers, reveals his predictions

Stepping down after 24 years as a headteacher, most recently as High Master of St Paul's, I was asked to predict what would happen in the next 24 years in education. A recent Radio 4 programme showed those who claimed most strongly to be able to predict the future had a dismal record of failure. The only people who had any success at all (and precious little of it at that) were those who cheerfully owned up to not having a clue. So, cheerfully owning up to not having a clue, here are my predictions.

The idea of 50 per cent of young people going to university will be quietly or loudly dropped. The country can't afford it, the students can't afford it and in too many cases the profusion of degree-awarding institutions has devalued a degree. Lord Baker's reinvented Technical Schools will take off like a rocket, and soon be vastly oversubscribed, as their equivalents in Germany were for many years. Universities and employers will finally wrest back control of exam specifications. Brilliant if they do: universities will start to believe exam grades again, and employers guarantee jobs to those who've acquired the skills they need. The nonsense of examination boards needing to turn in a profit will be ended; there will be a single, credible post-16 exam system for the UK (suggested name: ALL-level to stand for At Long Last). Universities will rebel at taking under-qualified students, pointing out that they can't be expected to put in what schools have left out. There will be a crisis in the supply of markers (underpaid and undervalued), a mass move by the exam boards to go for on-line marking and as a consequence a scandal of gargantuan proportions, proving that being cheap doesn't mean it's good.

Free schools will burgeon. Some will become grammar schools in all but name. Those who oppose grammar schools will have to point to alternative schools that achieve the same social mobility as did the grammar schools. There will be scandals based on Free or Faith schools that have become centres of extremism and fundamentalism. Despite this, the lesson of successful schools all over the world will be learnt, albeit slowly and painfully, and the ratio of central control to local autonomy in schools will inch to the 20/80 ratio that is the gold standard for some of the world's most successful schooling systems.

Research in to the physiology of the brain and the way people learn will not change co-education as the norm, but it will give it pause for thought, producing a resurgence in those who believe in single-sex education.

Schools will be inventive in their use of handheld devices, but there will be a generation war between young people who can't be torn away from social network sites and parents and teachers who are desperate to free them from the tyranny of 24-hour a day communication. There will be tragedies, including suicides, as bullies become more ingenious and devious in using the potential of texting and the internet to destroy a victim's self-esteem out of sight of adult eyes.

Another old-fashioned idea will have a new burst of popularity, and teachers again be defined in terms of the subject they teach, with a corresponding decline in the vision of the teacher as simply a social worker.

England will get fed up of being beaten at sport, waste millions of pounds on school sport in the wrong way and Premier League soccer clubs will continue to spend obscene amounts of money on players of dubious worth whilst putting virtually nothing in to school soccer.

There will be increasing tension, and court cases, about schools who see it as central to their authority to dictate what their pupils wear, and pupils and parents who claim it as their basic right to wear what they want. The law will be an ass. Teachers will picket the set of Waterloo Road and whatever is the successor is to Grange Hill, on the grounds that the programmes are a form of child abuse. Health and safety rules for trips will be relaxed again, someone (God forbid) will die and the rules come back again with even more draconian regulations, to protect the politicians rather than to protect the children.

A fight will break out at a television debate between those who favour selection, someone will die and the country, fed up with this Somme-like trench warfare, will say a plague on both their houses and demand a reconciliation akin to that between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.

More children will be overweight. Youth culture will increasingly view soft-drug usage as a recreational choice on a par with use of tobacco and alcohol. Just as a number of gay men practised unprotected sex before anyone really knew about Aids, so we will fail to inform our young people about the disastrous effects of binge-drinking on a young brain, and lay in a massive rod for their and society's back.

An independent school that does not partner at least one academy will be the exception rather than the rule, and a form of "for profit" will be allowed in some schools provided they deliver world-class standards and the education is free at the point of entry. We will again be allowed to call children "clever", and the most able be recognised as a special needs category. It will increasingly be recognised that education is a seamless continuum, the break between primary and secondary school too arbitrary and 14 rather than 11 the crucial time for choices to be made.

We will stop interpreting the basic human right of equal opportunity as meaning that all children must only have the same opportunity. We will recognise that a child is far more a result of its home than its school. We will stop asking schools to solve all society's problems, and recognise that it is society that has to solve society's problems.

But I have to add an important caveat that none of these may actually come true...

Martin Stephen was a high-profile headmaster of schools including St Paul's Boys and Manchester Grammar. He is former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and an outspoken critic of league tables.

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