poses an unprecedented challenge to schools on how to prepare their pupils to succeed in this increasingly competitive environment.
I recently re-read ‘The world is flat’, a superb book by Thomas Friedman that considers the impact of new technology within the context of globalisation. The first time I read it, it was from the perspective of an economist and the commercial and political implications were pretty ground shaking. However, when it is read from the perspective of an educationalist, the consequences are even more profound.
The title of the book is a metaphor for viewing the world as an increasingly level playing field in terms of commerce, opportunity and access to high quality education and ongoing professional development. The creation of the internet and powerful, low-cost cloud-based software means that it doesn’t matter whether you are a US multinational, a housewife in middle England or highly motivated teenage entrepreneur in Delhi; everyone has access to the same flat economic space and a direct connection to billions of potential customers; anyone can now play and compete. The old networks, the old distribution channels, the old barriers to entry that buttressed the position of the educated, professional elites and middle-classes are being completely sidestepped.
Indeed, big-business increasingly views and worries about existential threats not in terms of existing competitors, but in incubating start-ups. Tudor Aw, partner at KPMG Europe recently commented that hungry new entrants embrace data analytics and cloud technology. They also adroitly use social networks and online marketing and they have much less hierarchical, far more dynamic and collaborative structures.
This impact of this changing reality has yet to change attitudes. By way of example, I was recently reminded of a talk given by Paul Gouge, CEO of software company Playdemic, at Pownall Hall School in Cheshire. During the talk he made the point that despite running a highly successful organisation that employs over 70 programmers, artists, psychologists, musicians and writers, and despite winning a host of export awards, his parents were constantly giving him a hard time. They often asked when, as his company didn’t actually make anything in a tangible sense, was he was going to stop messing around with computer games and get a ‘real job’. By which they meant a profession.
As he was telling this story, Paul made the point that his company was outsourcing much of the accountancy work that used to be done for £40 per hour by the nice local firm down the road, to India. The quality of the work and advice was just as good, but they were now paying £4 per hour for this service.
In the World is flat, Friedman calls this kind of this type of professional work ‘fungible’; it can be very easily outsourced - and no profession will be immune to it’s consequences.
For example in medicine, some jobs such as nursing are ‘anchored’; you have to be there in person to dress the wounds. But it’s going to be open-season for many of the doctor’s jobs. Does the consultant radiologist have to be in Leeds? Or can those scans be interpreted more cheaply and to a higher standard by a world authority in Beijing?
The continuing rapid growth of emerging economies and the rise of multinational corporations means that UK graduates are increasingly competing in a world jobs market, rather than a national one. And it is a market that is being flooded by millions of very talented, able and highly motivated foreign-born graduates. Bill Gates said that the pool of talent that top companies will be able to recruit from in 2030 is 5 times the pool of talent of 2000.
The number of Chinese graduates has risen from 2.5 million 2000 to 6.5 million in 2014, whilst the number of UK graduates has remained largely static at 600,000.
Top employers are also increasingly recruiting by not from what graduates know - using standard examination results - but by their collaborative learning skills. Not only this, but the entry requirements for many of these organisations is far more stringent than for elite academic institutions. For example, the % intake for Infosys, one of the fastest growing technology companies in the world is 1% of those who have reached the entry requirements. The comparable figure for Oxbridge entry is 9%.
Yet high grades and accessing prestigious higher education institutions are still perceived as markers of quality - why else does the UK government produce league tables? The danger in persisting with this way of identifying and preparing ‘talent’, of course, is that we may be creating lots of highly qualified, but ultimately unemployed accountants.
As a result of this, Higher education institutions are now beginning reevaluate how they select candidates. A senior medical school undergraduate admissions officer that I recently discussed this with, said of his medical students, “The CVs that we receive are all very similar, as are the grades. There is also an increasing acknowledgement that the standard entrance interview isn’t the best vehicle for identifying great doctors. Medical schools are beginning to place far more value on traits such as compassion, empathy, effective communication skills, the ability to collaborate, to think laterally when solving problems and to look for multiple solutions to those problems. The ability to regurgitate a syllabus in two hours is becoming less of a factor.”
Whilst you’re thinking about that, think about this. In Chris Lewis’ book ‘the unemployables’ (a highly recommended read for educationalists, by the way) - he points out that 35% of the most successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic, but only 1% of senior managers in FTSE 100 companies are.
He also highlights the attributes that the most successful professional people have: determination, positivity, bravery, creativity, self-belief and sheer energy. They also have an ability to think laterally. These are traits that are difficult to assess of course. Consequently, we are less likely to nurture and value them in education, and do little other than to pay lip-service to their importance.
It is not only medical academics who are having doubts about talent selection processes. Some leading business thinkers and leaders are beginning to seriously question their recruitment strategies, with some such as Tom Peters arguing that you should never hire people with exceptionally high grades because to do this well at school means that you have to play exactly by the rules. To succeed in business or the professions, you need to think outside of rule based constructs that are constantly shifting. Peters’ conclusion is that if your business is stuffed full of employees who did exceptionally well at school, your business is probably doomed in this new flat world.
I am also hearing more and more anecdotal stories, especially from recruitment teams in the City that they are placing less and weight on ‘perfect’ CVs - first degree classifications at top universities, society president, grade 8 piano, fluent in several languages and so on. They increasingly feel that to achieve this kind of coached CV frequently leaves the candidate unable to thrive in the “real world”, so focused have they been on results and how they look on paper. What does this mean? It means that to really stand out a candidate needs to have a broader spectrum of experience, of the world around them, volunteer work, travel, working in the local supermarket or fast food outlet, something that gives them experience of people, customers/clients, teamwork and just being employed.
Of course, it’s important to have a strong cv to get in the door of any company and with competition in the jobs market so fierce, you need to be able to stand out. But you also need to survive and thrive once you’re in that job and employers look for things that suggest that this may be the case and how you’re able to represent that.
So what are the ‘take homes’ of this for schools? Narrow definitions of what constitute ‘talent’ and simply relying on standardised scores of 120+ is not only a missed opportunity for schools and pupils, it is also going to be increasingly damaging for the country as we progress through the 21st Century. Let’s not kid ourselves - unless you are ‘bright’ by the terms of the assessment construct AND have received a superb coaching up to that point, you are excluded. And some brains of exceptional ability and potential are simply wired in a different way that make standardised assessments worthless. Not only this, but the higher education institutions that these tests were designed as selection vehicles for are also slowly changing the way they recruit, partly because of the new reality, partly because of political pressure.
Given all of this, it is vital that we increasingly teach and measure ‘learning to learn’ skills and personal attributes through the vehicle of the curriculum; it is in this way that we will ensure the success of our pupils in world of work where the results of Common Entrance, ‘A’ Levels and degree classifications will count for less and less. Hordes of hungry, motivated, self-starting BRICS graduates are coming, and the question that we have to ask ourselves is: Is it our job to teach subjects? Or is it our job to allow children to develop the skills and mindsets they need to succeed in this new flat world through the vehicle of those subjects?