From education to employment

The Times Education Commission Report finds the British education system is ‘failing on every measure’

woman sat at desk
  • The report is one of the most comprehensive inquires ever held into the UK’s education system, with over 600 witnesses contributing
  • The year-long project has published a twelve point plan and list of recommendations to transform our failing education system 
  • A letter signed by 10 former education secretaries and two former prime ministers have welcomed the proposals and called on the government to act.
  • Polling for the commission by YouGov shows the majority of parents believe our education system badly prepares young people for life or work
  • “We want the commission to be a catalyst for change”, says John Witherow, editor of The Times

The Times Education Commission today publishes its final report.  Its recommendations are backed by leaders in business, education, culture and industry. Twelve former secretaries of state for education, the current education secretary and two former prime ministers have welcomed the proposals and called on the government to act.  

For the past year the commission has been examining Britain’s whole education system, from early years through to lifelong learning,  and considering its future. 

Polling for the commission by YouGov shows over half (59%) of parents with school-aged children believe Britain’s education system badly prepares children and young people for life and 60% think it prepares them badly for work.  

The poll also found the majority of parents (65%) think that the current education system puts too much emphasis on tests and qualifications and over half (56%) agree the current emphasis on tests and qualifications in schools is bad for young people’s mental health.

Only 4% of parents think a University degree prepares young people better than an apprenticeship and nearly half of school-aged pupils’ parents agreed the pandemic has created a good opportunity to rethink and make changes to our education system.

Leaders in education, business, culture and industry all agree.  The commission’s final report presents a practical 12-point plan to transform British education and unleash the potential in every child. 

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the system almost to its knees but also offered an opportunity for a reset.  A distinguished team of 22 commissioners was assembled with a record of achievement and leadership in education, business, science, government and the arts,  chaired by Times columnist Rachel Sylvester.  

Their task was to consider how British education can meet the challenges of declining social mobility and  low productivity, keep pace with new developments in technology, boost young people’s wellbeing, and respond to the changing nature of work.

The inquiry held fortnightly evidence sessions, regional roundtable meetings, schools visits, international trips, youth panels, parent focus groups and interviews. The commissioners heard from more than 600 witnesses, including leaders in education, business and the arts, as well as two former prime ministers. 12 former secretaries of state for education and the current one.

John Witherow, editor of The Times,  said:

“We want this report to be a catalyst for change and our aim is to put education back on top of the political agenda. This report is the first to look at the education system from early years through to lifelong learning. Education, put simply, should be at the heart of Britain’s future.”

The report has been welcomed by 10 former education secretaries, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, numerous business leaders, and a Nobel prize winning scientist, who in a letter to The Times today urge the government to engage seriously with the recommendations.

The solution to fix Britain’s failing education system the 96-page report recommends

  1. A British Baccalaureate offering broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18,  with parity in funding per pupil in both routes, and a slimmed-down  set of exams at 16 to bring out the  best in every child.
  1. An “electives premium” for  all schools to be  spent on activities  including drama, music, dance and sport and a national citizen’s service experience  for every pupil, with volunteering and outdoor pursuits expeditions to ensure that the co-curricular activities enjoyed by the most advantaged become available to all. 
  1. A new cadre of Career Academies  — elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links  to industry  — mirroring  the academic sixth  forms that are being  established and a new focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism in education to unleash the economic potential of Britain. 
  1. A significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and a unique pupil number from birth, to  level the playing field before children get  to school. A library in every primary school. 
  1. An army of undergraduate tutors earning credit towards their degrees by helping pupils who fall behind to catch up.
  1. A laptop or tablet for every child and a greater use of artificial intelligence in schools, colleges and universities to personalise learning, reduce teacher workload and prepare young people better for future employment. 
  1. Wellbeing should be at the heart of education, with a counsellor in every  school and an annual wellbeing survey of pupils to encourage schools to actively build resilience rather than just support students once problems have arisen. 
  1. Bring out the best in teaching by enhancing its status and appeal with better career development, revalidation every five years and a new category of  consultant teachers, promoted within the  classroom, as well  as a new teaching  apprenticeship. 
  1. A reformed Ofsted that works collaboratively with schools to secure sustained improvement rather than operating through fear and a new  “school report card”  with a wider range  of metrics including  wellbeing, school culture, inclusion and attendance to unleash the potential of  schools. 
  1. Better training for teachers to identify children with special educational needs, a greater focus on  inclusion and a duty  on schools to remain accountable for the pupils they exclude to  draw out the talent in  every child.
  1. New university campuses in fifty higher education “cold spots”, including satellite wings in FE colleges, improved pay and conditions in the FE sector and a transferable credit system between universities and colleges to boost stalled British productivity.
  1. A 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures, putting education above short-term party politics and bringing out the best in our schools, colleges and universities.

The challenges

The commission found that:

  • Our education system fails on all measures, from giving young people the intellectual and emotional tools they need as an adult to providing businesses with the skills they need. 
    • 75% of companies say they have had to give extra training in basic skills.
  • It found inequalities are ingrained from an early age and preschool education is crucial but overlooked in this country.
    • Primary school teachers reported that 46% of children are not ‘school ready’.
  • The curriculum is too rigid and inflexible, with most schools constrained by an outdated rubric imposed by Whitehall that has no room for regional variation and takes little account of employers’ needs. 
    • 24% of parents would prefer their children to do more co-curricular activities such as sport, drama, debating or music and less academic study. (From the YovGov poll)
  • Our assessments are not making the grade, with no other developed country’s teenagers sitting as many high-stake tests as ours do. This focus on academic attainment has unbalanced the system
    • 65% of parents think the education system places too much emphasis on tests and qualifications and 70% of businesses believe that the current UK secondary education system focuses too much on grades.
  • That teachers are leaving the profession in their droves because they feel overworked and undervalued. Ofsted, which is supposed to support them, is a toxic brand.
    • 46% of teachers and 40% of senior leaders reported experiencing anxiety, and another 28% of teachers and 19% of senior leaders acute stress.
  • The pandemic lockdowns helped to illustrate how the digital revolution could transform the way schools operate in the 21st century. AI can turn students into active rather than passive learners
    • 30% of primary school children do not always have access to an adequate device for online learning at home.
  • One thing that parents put at the top of the list for their children’s education is confidence about their wellbeing. The evidence suggests that they are being let down.
    • The Children Society’s annual survey has found that children’s wellbeing has been falling since 2009 and more than 300,000 10 to 15 years-olds in the UK are unhappy with their lives.
  • No school is an island: whether it be a rural state primary or a world-famous alma mater of prime ministers, its influence will stretch far beyond the school gates and into the community.
    • There is a growing gap between state school spending per pupil compared with average private school fees, and over the past decade day-to-day state school spending per student has fallen by 9% in the state sector, but private school fees have gone up by 20%.
  • About 1.4 million state pupils are judged to have special educational needs but that designation covers a wide range of conditions that the system cannot adequately address. 
    • 68% of parents whose children needed the greatest support, reported that their child’s needs were not met during the pandemic. 
  • There is much to celebrate in the higher and further education sectors but so much more could be done to make them truly accessible to everyone. 
    • There is over 1,000 pages of paperwork involved in setting up a new university.

Michael Morpurgo, author, poet and playwright, former teacher and one of the commissioners, said;

“For any society nothing matters more than the children, the seedcorn of its future. Education is for opening eyes and minds and hearts. It is our task to enable all our children to have the educational opportunities to live life to the full, for themselves and for one another, for all of us on this planet.”

In his evidence to the commission the inventor James Dyson told the commission there was an urgent economic imperative for reform to the curriculum and assessment system to produce the entrepreneurs and engineers of the future;

“Children are creative, they love building and making things . . . but as they get closer to GCSEs and A-levels all that is squashed out of them,” 

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the commission it was even more important to be radical than 25 years ago;

We’ve got to refocus on education as the key priority for building a better, more successful, more unified country in the next decade.”

Read the full report here.

Sector Response

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“The report of the Times Education Commission is another indicator of the gulf between the policies of government and the needs of our education system.

“Around many topics, its findings will add to the case for change: for replacing Ofsted, rethinking our exam system, prioritising creativity, investing in the early years.  These bold and large-scale measures will be supported by educators, who will also welcome the Commission’s recognition that, if valued properly, they are ‘part of the solution’ in education.

“They will also look for answers to problems that are less prominent in the report – from the damage done to children by rising levels of poverty, to replacing our deeply flawed system of primary assessment. In this context, the Union welcomes the Commission’s proposal for a national conversation and a long-term strategy for education, in which those who work in schools and colleges should have a central role.”

Natalie Perera, Chief Executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:   

“Today’s Times Education Commission report highlights the pressing need for the government to tackle the growing gap in inequalities in education, which have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

EPI welcomes a number of recommendations in the report which reflect findings from our own evidence. These include significantly increasing funding in the early years, improving mental health and wellbeing support in schools and colleges, extending the Pupil Premium to cover children who have a child protection plan in place, ensuring all children have access to a digital device, increasing post-16 funding and raising the status of the teaching profession.

Our research has found that, prior to the pandemic, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers stood at over 18 months by age 16 and was widening. If the government is serious about “levelling up” it must tackle, with urgency, evidence-based interventions which will help to close the gap. A concerted strategy that tackles poverty as well as education and health inequalities is crucial.”

Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said:

“This landmark report appreciates the vital importance of colleges both to local communities and the national economy and underlines the immense funding constraints colleges have faced since 2010.

“As former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke highlights in the report, poor staff pay means colleges are struggling to retain and recruit the top teaching talent needed to pass skills on to the next generation. AoC has already written to the Education Secretary asking him to lobby the current occupant of Number 11 for emergency funding to boost college lecturers pay.

“The idea for a British Baccalaureate is an idea worth exploring so students are not pushed into a binary choice between technical training and academic study at 16. Vocational education should be part of the general educational offer so young people are prepared for the world of work.

“Rather than setting up new ‘career academies’ the focus should be on providing better funding for colleges which already deliver cutting edge skills for 1.7 million students day in, day out. We would encourage investment in existing FE infrastructure to promote creativity and entrepreneurialism, incentivise more employers to engage with their local college and ensure up-to-date resources and adequately paid staff can deliver the government’s skills revolution. “There are already strong links between colleges and universities and one in 10 students in higher education study in an FE college. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we would urge government to work with colleges which already have an established reach into their communities to promote lifelong learning.”

A Spokesperson for the Independent Assessment Commission said:

“There is much to welcome in the Times’ Report. It is a strong reminder of the broad and growing consensus for change that now exists. The Times Report follows on the heels of the recent IAC report and the work being done by groups such as Rethinking Assessment, all of which believe there is a fundamental need to reform and improve how we assess our young people in school.”

“Key concerns around the damaging rigidity of the curriculum; an outdated assessment system; and a damaging impact on young people’s mental health from an over-reliance on high-stakes exams all feature in our recent report and they have been reasserted again in today’s Times report.”

“The Times’ Final Report now joins our work in being another significant intervention on the need to improve the way we assess young people.”

“As this year’s exams draw to a close, it is clearly time for the Government to listen to the growing chorus of voices calling for change and create a modern, inclusive and innovative assessment and qualifications system that prepares young people well for the next stage of their lives, in college, employment or university.”

Sam Avanzo Windett, Deputy Director, Learning and Work Institute:

“Educational attainment is central to life chances, yet our Youth Commission found that this is more dependent on family background here than in other countries. Today’s Times Education Commission report provides important insights into the inequalities in Britain’s education system and what needs to change.

We need a broad set of ideas to improve employment and skills outcomes, built on a firm understanding of future career opportunities and essential skills needs. Our research shows that profound economic and social changes, particularly the collision of advances in technology and lengthening working lives, require a sound platform of skills and flexible ways to learn. We need a more joined up approach to set a higher ambition for education and employment, including a focus on lifelong learning, for everyone to have an opportunity to realise their ambitions in learning, work and throughout life.”

Jane Hickie, AELP Chief Executive:

“Although we’d have liked the Times Education Commission to have focused more on FE and lifelong learning, there are some positive aspects of the report that deserve full consideration. This includes recommendations for improved pay and conditions in the FE sector and that careers guidance should be an integral part of education and offer better links with local businesses.

“We know that pay and conditions are significant issues in the FE sector- with many providers struggling to recruit and retain good staff- particularly in light of the ongoing cost of living crisis. Therefore, further intervention to support the sector would be welcome. Ensuring that young people have high quality careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG) that explains all options open to them is crucial in helping overcome barriers to learning and promoting social mobility. CIAG should be accessible for all ages, in every area of the country, and must offer parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes.”

Related Articles