Recently at a Future FoundationsGlobal Social Leaders conference, I met some amazing students from an amazing school.

The future of education is being reshaped in schools like The Studio in Liverpool. Its aim is preparing students for the future of work in a digital age. Hats off indeed to the school for what it’s doing.

A sizeable undertaking

It is a massive undertaking to prepare students adequately for a world of work where the landscape will be all but unrecognisable by the time they get there. As I write, PwC has just released a report which estimates that almost one-third of all UK jobs could be at risk from automation by the 2030s. According to John Hawksworth, the firm’s chief economist, the jobs most at risk are those that are more manual and routine, which can effectively be programmed.

‘Jobs where you’ve got more of a human touch, like health and education,’ would be less affected, he said.

On the flipside, new automation technologies will create some totally new jobs in the digital space. Productivity gains that come through such means will generate additional wealth and spending which in turn undergird additional jobs in services sectors that are less susceptible to automation.

What are skills for the future?

In a future where knowledge will be a commodity, PwC’s Head of Technology and Investments Jon Andrews observed the need ‘to shift our thinking on how we skill and upskill future generations. Creative and critical thinking will be highly valued, as will emotional intelligence.’

And this will be crucial. The World Economic Forum too concurs with what industry leaders are saying, that emotional intelligence, creativity, and people management will be among top skills needed for jobs in 2020.

In the 2017 UK Spring budget, the chancellor turned his attention to the woeful state of vocational training and further education. A big injection of funds was promised — a 19% increase in the 16-19-year-old vocational education budget over five years. Students will work towards technical ‘T-levels’, developed with firms. About time too. In 2012, in a survey ranking 20-45-year-olds finishing education with a vocational qualification, the UK was placed 16th out of 20 OECD countries.

Curriculum reform

Curriculum reform for a digital era seems to have everyone’s attention these days. In mid-March, eleven university presidents from South Korea, Indonesia and Turkey tackled the issue at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities SummitGu-Wuck Bu, president of South Korea’s Youngsan University said that universities all over the world are being forced to reform their curricula to cope with the coming new era.’ The real problem, he added, ‘is that the future is unpredictable. We cannot say what kind of job will disappear and what will survive.’

The debate about how universities should respond to the fourth industrial revolution pitches those advocating wholesale changes to prioritise software skills versus voices contending that such moves would render institutions ‘slaves to industry’. Maybe it’s true that when the next jobs cannot be accurately anticipated, even five years from now, the thing to do is not to accommodate but to step back and generalise. Yet a liberal education on its own will not equip students adequately for a digital future.

With such significance attached to digital education, the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) in Dubai launched again in March, a learning platform ‘to empower children to self-learn their DQ.’ In the same way as IQ and EQ measure general and emotional intelligence, DQ measures a person’s ability and command of digital media. The DQ Institute has observed that focusing on DQ was identified as an effective way of improving digital citizenship by the World Economic Forum.

Soft skills, not just software skills

Yet to do well in the world of work that is coming upon us at the speed of a self-driving lorry, social, soft skills will also be vital. We will require not only technical expertise but also emotional intelligence: empathy. It’s the combination of creativity and empathy that will help young people develop sensitivity to multiple perspectives and the ability to work across cultures — hallmarks of future global leadership.

Proposals? At a local level, on the edge of Southampton, we’re developing a pilot project inviting secondary and further education providers in the area to become linked to an all-age, creativity and empathy hubs. By placing students into a creative environment where young and old can mix, they can, for example, teach IT skills to those who are perhaps socially isolated. In return, life wisdom is imparted. The prize to be gained from such inter-generational exchanges is the nurturing of empathy, collaboration and insights into teamwork. The project would of course have to be measured against key performance indicators to offer assessments that can then be publicly validated and that future employers will respect.

The idea is worth exploring. In addition to community schools and colleges, there are plenty of heritage spaces around that make ideal social ecosystems of this sort. Certainly, offering opportunities to learn creativity and empathy will provide the social skills that are increasingly needed in the digital economy we find ourselves in. Education systems need re-tooling. As could be argued from a report by economic think tank the Hamilton Project, it is ‘Goodbye, maths and English. Hello, teamwork and communication’!

By Dr Chris Steed, Southampton University

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