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Why the sky is the limit for current school leavers


When Sir Ken Robinson asked if schools killed creativity in his now world-famous Ted Talk a decade ago, it caused a generation of parents to sit up and pay attention. Since then, his talk has been viewed by over 36 million people globally, testament to the fact that parents everywhere are concerned that schools’ preoccupation with academic achievement is not necessarily serving their children as it should.

Almost exactly ten years later, Tony Little, former-headmaster of Eton, remarked in a speech to 600 school leavers that up to 70 per cent of them would ultimately work in jobs not yet invented. Given the workplace today is virtually unrecognisable from the place it was when his pupils’ parents were leaving school and university, this struck an equally resonant chord.

‘This is pin-drop stuff for the teenagers,’ says Little. ‘It throws into sharp relief what education is for. In the UK we’ve been driven further and further by a measurement culture and the need to achieve 12 GCSEs and so on. When you put the two ideas next to each other, it looks odd. So, my question is, how do we join the dots?’

It’s a question that many public school heads are already grappling with. Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor at Buckingham University and ex-headmaster of Wellington, has made a name for himself by questioning what schools are really for and challenging the age-old habit of sending children to the same schools for generations. He is passionate about nurturing creativity and individuality amongst Wellingtonians and his successor, Julian Thomas, is carrying the baton. Like Little and Seldon, Thomas is concerned about the need for schools to better prepare for an unknown future.

The digital age

‘Recent research predicted that, in less than two decades, as many as a third of occupations would be digitised, with humans substituted by robots or computers,’ says Thomas. ‘It feels as if our exam system is still designed to support an educational system based on the recall of knowledge; a skill required for a different age. Instead students now need skills that will never be superseded by robots – they need to be independent learners, have resilience and soft skills like emotional intelligence, leadership and adaptability.  Creativity and research skills will all be vital.’

John Stein is professor emeritus of Physiology at Oxford University and co-founder and chairman of the Dyslexia Research Trust. He says, ‘In countries where manual jobs will be done by robots, we can’t predict precisely what employers will seek, so children must learn to be adaptable, imaginative, creative and innovative. The present schooling system simply hasn’t kept up. It is still teaching kids to the same tune as in Victorian times, when they were learning to be clerks and how to push paper around. Computer programming isn’t taught in all schools and I don’t see schools even trying to adapt to the idea that all kids must know how computers work.

‘Dyslexic children have unusual talents that can’t be measured in the normal way. Dyslexics may be bad at reading and linear sequencing but they make creative connections and see bigger patterns,’ says Stein. ‘They are the kind of people we’re going to need more and more. It’s not enough to be straightforwardly academic – teachers must be free to encourage children to be imaginative and creative.’

Life skills

Many schools have remained so focused on conventional learning that children are leaving with little knowledge of how to negotiate the real world. John Gordon is the founder of the How To: Academy and has run life skills classes for A-level and university students for the last three years. ‘Talking to parents we found students might have four A* A-levels but that doesn’t mean they’re capable of functioning in real life,’ he says. ‘We’re filling a gap by teaching students practical skills that are not on the academic curriculum. They range from confidence building and public speaking to the absolute basics, like how to manage time and handle money – 99 per cent of our students had never even written a budget. We even teach students how to buy cheap healthy food and cook it. 

‘Employers are looking for so much more than a trotted-out personal statement so they also focus on the importance of good manners and etiquette – an immensely popular class – and starting points like how to look people in the eye and speak on the telephone. To an older generation this all sounds simple but the pressure on students to achieve academically means that basic day-to-day skills have been neglected.’

‘Really good schools teach young people to navigate the complex adult landscape by learning how to relate to people,’ says Tony Little, who is baffled by the British educational system’s failure to adapt. ‘Why do we have an exam system that has pupils sitting down to write papers for three hours and penalised as cheats if they confer? Why not encourage them to do teamwork? One thing I know for sure is that children learn more from each other than from adults. Habits of mind are so much more important than knowledge but what habits of mind are we really asking our children to acquire?’

Julian Thomas says, ‘The key thing we need to ask ourselves as a school is, how are our children going to respond to problems?  Are they equipped with the tools they need to respond in an independent way or are they waiting for other people to tell them what to do? You have to place independent learning at the heart of the school’s philosophy, not just as an add-on.’

Increasingly, employers are looking for proof of this sort of independent thought. Robin Kennedy runs WEXO, a matchmaking network for work experience, paid internships and jobs, in a joint venture with Step Enterprise, the UK’s leading internships provider. ‘The Economist called it “the war for talent” and we’ve seen that employers, keen to win that war, are looking to connect with young people further and further down the food chain,’ says Kennedy.

‘The difference now is that companies like Microsoft aren’t using competency-based techniques to hire people,’ he says, ‘they are just asking what people are good at and if they buy the answer (often based on your work experience) and have a need for that skill, they will then hire you. All work experience is good, if only to understand what you don’t want to do. You must work out what your interests and skills are as early as possible and start to develop a back story and justification for what you do want to do. Over 70 per cent of employers want to see commercial awareness above anything else.’

Bella Eccles is the founder of Tinker Tailor, which mentors young people through school programmes and workshops, to deliver bespoke, independent, transformative career advice. ‘You must be able to talk about yourself if you’re going to get on and we help answer that question. It’s about starting at the beginning with some basic storytelling and embellishing it,’ she says. ‘For too long, public schools have churned out pupils with identical CVs and haven’t been good at helping pupils translate this document into what it says about them.’ Employers nowadays would rather see someone who’s done a Saturday or voluntary job than someone straight out of an internship at their father’s law firm.

‘I met a girl who’d had strings pulled so she could work on the Wall Street Journal for a week,’ says Eccles, ‘but what did she really learn? She’d have been better off developing soft skills at her local newspaper. In the private sector now there is inverse snobbery so employers are harder on pupils they think have been handed it all on a plate from public school. Ask a child why they did Duke of Edinburgh and they’ll usually say, “my parents”, rather than think about what they got out of it. They’re not using that experience to be remotely individual. Schools need to start connecting pupils to the real world and we’re helping them to do that.’

Careers advice

Gloomy as it may look, many schools are already taking a pro-active approach to the looming crisis and putting forward-thinking careers advice centre stage.

Catherine Hayter is head of careers and enterprise at Clayesmore, a co-educational school in Dorset. ‘We’re a mixed ability school and our motto is to develop unique talents with a bespoke individual approach,’ she explains. ‘Some will go to Oxbridge, some do apprenticeships.’ Hayter worked in a Canadian school where she was impressed by the can-do attitude. ‘I brought home a sense of that positivity. We don’t have such a culture of selling ourselves here but students need to be able to brand themselves if they’re going to succeed in the workplace. It’s no good writing a list of achievements – who cares? Employers want to know what they learnt from their experiences.’

Hayter has been head of careers at Clayesmore for four years and has managed to embed careers lessons into the curriculum, which start in Year Nine when students do three-day courses, which she likens to The Apprentice. ‘They have to create a product, like a soap, that they design, package, market and sell, so they understand a layered approach from early on.’ After AS levels, the school runs its own Aardvark University experience, designed to encourage teamwork and independent learning. Pupils spend a day doing anything, from building a raft or debating current issues, like bombing Syria or climate change, to making paracetamol in the chemistry lab. They pay as much attention to alternatives to university like BTechs, Clayesmore business diplomas and young enterprise schemes.

Celia Norvill is careers advisor at St Mary’s Ascot and is equally aware of the need for a more forward approach to careers advice: ‘People tend to apply for jobs online now so we teach pupils how to develop a positive online reputation and to network effectively. We also tell our girls that times will change and that they’re going to need to be prepared to transfer their skills.’

Good academic results will get you into a good university and give you a good degree but what then? ‘Students need to seek out work placements and find out what they’re interested in,’ says Norvill. ‘We tell them to take every single opportunity they can to find out what they like and what they’re good at. They need to be able to assess themselves – it’s no good doing something that looks good on a CV unless you really know what you learnt and why you get a spark. Only then will it give you the edge you need.’

St Mary’s develops networking skills by calling on parents and alumnae to help pupils understand the workplace. ‘And it’s not just a matter of coming in for a quick talk,’ says Norvill. ‘Where possible we ask them to take on pupils as interns or offer email advice. This year we’ve had Inspirational Women talks, taken pupils to an evening at a city bank and had guest speakers coming in. We have a very active alumnae association which gathers for networking sessions and, in 2016, recently qualified alumnae are coming back to share their experiences and give advice – pupils find it useful hearing from girls close to their age.’

‘Parents still choose a school by its academic results and pay little attention to the careers department,’ says Bella Eccles. ‘In fact, schools should be measured by where their alumni are five years after they’ve left and if parents want value for money, schools should take on a careers employability specialist or seek the help of an external specialist like us – experts who really know what employers are looking for and keep abreast of the constant shift in skills required, plus oversee pupils’ work placements and internships. Some schools – though not nearly enough – are already putting these kind of measures in place like Bradfield College, which is looking for a head of Bradfield horizons ‘to build a proper careers department’.

‘At St Mary’s Ascot we’re seeing a real change as parents now actively seek me out when they’re looking around the school,’ says Celia Norvill. ‘They want to know where all this expensive education is going to lead.’

Julian Thomas sees it as Wellington’s duty to have an updated, proactive careers department. ‘For decades, going to a top university to read a traditional academic subject was the be-all and end-all. Today, universities are no longer the only show in town. Tuition fees were a game changer and now we have to look further afield.’

Ten per cent of their students go to universities in America and abroad and companies like KPMG, Deloitte and Jaguar Land Rover are providing professional training with a salary, leading to a degree, so students don’t end up with a mountain of debt. ‘These schemes are becoming increasingly popular and I predict that the very best ones will be as difficult to get on to as it is to get into a top university,’ says Thomas. ‘We have to move away from simply repeating what we have always done and collectively change the way we advise and educate our students for the future.’

‘It’s so important to help children understand where their skills fit in a world increasingly led by technology but it’s not enough just to encourage them to read more science subjects or ditch history for maths in a knee-jerk reaction,’ says Bella Eccles. ‘After all, only 20 per cent of people working at Google will be doing technical jobs and Google’s still going to need others to come up with great ideas, execute them and sell them. Creativity is essential.’

‘The current assessment system doesn’t fully value creative thinking because there are so many papers to mark and so few quality markers that they have to be assessed using basic criteria,’ says Julian Thomas. ‘It’s going to be more and more important to be creative but we’ve got to put it at the centre of everything we do and students should value it for its own sake in all they do from creating an argument to writing prose. It’s at the core of school life at Wellington.’

‘The word “extra-curricular” needs to be deleted,’ says Tony Little. ‘A good school gives as much importance to sports, creative and performing arts as academia and must provide a positive environment and broad canvas for pupils to be able to express themselves as individuals.’

If parents are worried they have every right to be until the narrow means of examining and measuring children’s abilities changes. Yet they can at least rest assured that ten years on from Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk, top public schools are intent on nurturing those skills that pupils are so desperately going to need – imagination, resilience, adaptability, independent thinking, individuality, a knack for innovation, leadership, teamwork and creativity – for the brave new world ahead of them.