Curriculum is 'failing to prepare students for digital revolution'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: iStock

With fears that the digital revolution will mean the loss of up to 15 million UK jobs in the coming years, a report by Lord Kenneth Baker argues that our national curriculum is failing to prepare young people for this challenge. Pete Henshaw takes a look

“Every day, jobs are being lost in professions we used to regard as careers for life.”

This stark warning has been issued by the architect of the national curriculum Lord Kenneth Baker, who has this week raised his concern about the huge impact that the digital revolution will have on the jobs market in the coming years.

Lord Baker says that the UK’s future workforce will need technical expertise and key skills to survive as technology and artificial intelligence take over millions of lower skilled, routine jobs.

His warning comes in a new report, entitled The Digital Revolution: The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on employment and education, in which he outlines an eight-point action plan (see below) that calls for a radical overhaul of our approach in mainstream schools.

This includes the reintroduction Young Apprenticeships at 14 and developing a technical stream from 14 to 18 in mainstream schools.

The report is inspired by Bank of England research last year, which found that up to 15 million jobs are at risk in the UK because of automation over the next decade or so – with those most at risk including administrative, clerical and production tasks.

This research was based on an American study suggesting that “about 47 per cent of total US employment is at risk” in the coming years, affecting routine and middle-income jobs, many of which are currently filled by graduates who did not take a technical degree.

Lord Baker’s report highlights the numerous advances in digital technology that are causing change at a much more rapid pace than in previous industrial revolutions.

Examples include driverless vehicles, which could potentially take-over a range of tasks, affecting millions of jobs (in America, for example, there are three million truck drivers and 8.7 million working in the trucking industry). Mercedes is currently developing driverless lorries while Google’s work on driverless cars is already well publicised.

Another example is the robotic economy, not least 3D printing. The report includes the example of a footbridge in the Netherlands being built using long robotic arms and a 3D printer – no human hand needed.

Other examples include virtual reality and artificial intelligence, with Starship Technologies already running robots that deliver packages to small companies in central London.

The report states: “Economists talk about the ‘hollowing out’ of the labour market. In this scenario, highly qualified roles are numerous and well-paid. Low-skilled, low-wage jobs (e.g. in social care) are similarly numerous. Experts point to a gap in the middle where skilled jobs used to be, particularly in manufacturing and in general administration.”

Lord Baker – who is chairman of the Edge Foundation educational charity – underlines how, as a result of the rapid development of technologies, the nature of work is changing and will continue to change – with young people now needing a “broad range of skills, attitudes and experiences”, including knowledge but also technical expertise.

However, Lord Baker – who as education secretary in 1988 oversaw the introduction of the national curriculum – says that today this thinking is “entirely absent from the core curriculum in mainstream schools”.

The report says that one example of the problems we face can be seen with design and technology education, which the report claims is being “squeezed out” of schools because of a bias against practical and technical subjects. Over the last five years, GCSE entries have fallen by nearly 20 per cent and A level entries by nearly 30 per cent.

As well as technical expertise and the ability to apply knowledge, the report says that skills and experience will be what set future entrants to the workforce apart.

The report continues: “As machines take over more and more routine tasks, paid work of all kinds and at every level will increasingly depend on applying knowledge in novel contexts and performing non-routine tasks.

“Working well with others will be a further essential requirement. To be effective, people will need to listen attentively, absorb and understand information, show empathy, speak clearly and adapt to changing moods and needs.”

Lord Baker quotes Andrew Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, who said: “In a world in which machines came to dominate tasks involving core cognitive processing, the importance of, and skill premium attached to, non-cognitive skills is likely to rise.

“The high-skill/high-pay jobs of the future may involve skills better measured by EQs than IQs, by jobs creating social as much as financial value. Yet our education system, at present, has a strongly cognitive slant.

“Perhaps in future that will need to change, with as much effort put into cultivating social CVs as academic ones.”

Key skills and attributes for work-ready students as suggested in the report, include:

  • Good reasoning skills.
  • The ability to examine and solve problems.
  • Experience of working in teams.
  • An ability to make data-based decisions – they are “data savvy”.
  • Social skills – particularly the confidence to talk to and work with adults from outside school.
  • The skills of critical-thinking, active listening, presentation and persuasion.
  • Practical skills: the ability to make and do things for real.
  • Basic business knowledge.

The report adds: “We should not go back to a 19th century diet of academic subjects for all. All young people should make and do things as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

“The government’s White Paper has a firm commitment for students to focus on seven academic subjects at GCSE – English language, English literature, maths, two sciences, a modern or ancient language, geography or history, plus probably a third science. This is word-for-word the curriculum laid down by the Education Act of 1904, though it added three subjects – drawing, cooking for girls, and carpentry or metalwork for boys.”

Lord Baker also highlights the dramatic rise in self-employment. Bank of England figures show that 4.5 million people – 15 per cent of the UK workforce – are now self-employed. Growth in the rate of self-employment accounted for around a third of the increase in total employment between 2010 and 2015.

This trend, as well as the growth in part-time working, will only continue, the report warns and again skills will be crucial to young people facing this kind of jobs market.

The report states: “The working lives of self-employed and part-time workers will result from a set of skills, experience and expert knowledge traded day-by-day and week-by-week, working under contracts as short as an hour and in shifting teams.

“Your office will be wherever your laptop happens to be. You will experience a succession of brief encounters with clients, suppliers, temporary colleagues and collaborators, and they are likely to be your income stream.

“Some call this ‘portfolio working’; others, the ‘gig economy’. The gig economy is well-established in Britain and ... Andrew Haldane paints a vision of hundreds of thousands of micro-businesses offering individually tailored products and services, personalised to the needs of customers, from health and social care to leisure services and luxury products – all of them run by what he calls a ‘new artisan class’ of self-employed people.”

The report’s eight-point action plan draws upon the educational ideas of the University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which Lord Baker says already combine skills, technical and academic education effectively.

In UTCs, students can choose an Apprenticeship or degree in a range of subjects and careers, which they study alongside academic options. Lord Baker – via the Baker Dearing Trust – has been heavily involved in supporting the 39 UTCs currently open across England. At least 16 more are planned by 2017.

Lord Baker said: “The economy is changing at an unprecedented pace. Every day, jobs are being lost in professions we used to regard as careers for life.

“Artificial intelligence, robots, 3D printing and driverless vehicles will impact on sectors as varied as the legal profession, transport and construction.

“The UK’s future workforce will need technical expertise in areas such as design and computing, plus skills which robots cannot replace – flexibility, empathy, creativity and enterprise. Right now, this thinking is almost entirely absent from the core curriculum in mainstream schools.

“In the Digital Revolution, knowledge is as necessary as ever, but it is not enough. It has to be connected with the real world through practical applications ranging from engineering and IT to the performing, creative and culinary arts. We should not go back to a 19th century diet of academic subjects for all. We need 21st century education for a 21st century economy.”

The Digital Revolution: Lord Baker’s eight-point plan

  1. Primary schools should bring in outside experts to teach coding.
  2. All primaries should have 3D printers and design software.
  3. Secondary schools should be able to teach computer science, design and technology or another technical/practical subject in place of a foreign language GCSE.
  4. The computer science GCSE should be taken by at least half of all 16-year-olds.
  5. Young Apprenticeships should be reintroduced at 14, blending a core academic curriculum with hands-on learning.
  6. All students should learn how businesses work, with schools linked to local employers.
  7. Schools should be encouraged to develop a technical stream from 14 to 18 for some students, covering enterprise, health, design and hands-on skills.
  8. Universities should provide part-time courses for apprentices to get Foundation and Honours degrees.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin