State of the nation

Set up in 2021, the Times Education Commission is about to report on the state of education in the UK. Commission Chair, Rachel Sylvester looks at the initial findings.

What’s it all about?

Sir James Dyson, the inventor and one of Britain’s most successful businessmen, did not hold back when he spoke to The Times Education Commission about schooling in this country. “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,” he told us. “It’s all about rote-learning, not about using your imagination. The system doesn’t measure creativity, it measures what you can remember of other people’s facts.”  The economic as well as the human consequences were, the millionaire insisted, dire.

The Times Education Commission, a year-long inquiry which is due to report in June 2022, is looking at education across the board in the UK, right through from early years to higher education and lifelong learning. The scope of the inquiry is ambitious but it is impossible to disentangle the constituent parts of the system.

Who are we talking to?

We are deliberately drawing on a wide range of expertise – we have the children’s writer Michael Morpurgo, the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees, the head of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt and the business leaders Damon Buffini and Karan Bilimoria on our Commission as well educators and politicians. Our aim is to work out what the UK needs from the education system, in a way that rises above stale ideological debates and political spin and draw up proposals for reform.

Already, the Commission has spoken to almost 400 school and college leaders, teachers, employers, scientists, artists, writers, pupils, parents and politicians, including 12 former education secretaries and two former prime ministers. We have held regional round tables and youth panels, as well as going on school visits and international tours. A clear consensus has emerged about the need for a radical reshaping of an education system that is increasingly seen as out of touch and failing to draw out different kinds of talent.

What are people saying?

The venture capitalist Dame Kate Bingham, who oversaw the successful vaccine procurement programme, told the Commission it was a mistake to force students to choose between humanities and sciences at such an early age. “There is too much specialisation … and I think a lot of science teaching is not very interesting.”

The classicist Dame Mary Beard described how young people arriving at Cambridge had changed since she started teaching forty years ago. “The assessment system is putting a brake on kids’ explorations and achievements. Kids expect now that you will tell them what they have to do in order to get a good mark. It’s ‘I want to know what I do to get a first’ instead of ‘I want to explore this subject as widely as I possibly can until my head hurts’.”

Creating the future with a spark

The sculptor Sir Antony Gormley pointed out that his own successful career had been forged in his school art room. “It’s not the acquisition of knowledge that is going to create the future, it is the learning of skills, of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking,” he said. “I don’t know how we can betray the potential of our young so utterly.”

The Oscar-winning film director Sir Steve McQueen described being inspired by his English country dancing classes at school. “All kids need is a spark, a half a spark, just a little light. They think ‘mmm, that’s interesting’,” he told the Commission. “We’re not creating robots, we want to create great human beings who can actually contribute.”

The world is changing at an astonishing rate and yet schools, colleges and universities are still in many ways stuck in the 19th century. YouGov polling for the Commission found that two thirds of parents think that the education system does not prepare children for either work or life.

The education to life disconnect

At the same time, instead of promoting social mobility, it is entrenching division. A third of children fail their GCSEs – they do not get a grade 4 in either English or Mathematics – and many of those who do worst are the most disadvantaged young people. By the age of 16, poor pupils are more than 18 months behind their wealthier peers and 40 per cent of this gap exists by the age of 5. These children are effectively being written off before they get anywhere near the school gates.

There is a disconnect between education and employment. A survey of businesses for the Commission, by the professional services firm PwC, found that 75 per cent of companies had to give new recruits additional training in basic skills including literacy and numeracy. The country is suffering a huge financial hit. We were given an analysis by the Commercial Education Trust which found that reforming education to make it more commercially relevant would boost the economy by £125 billion a year.

Analogue system in a digital age?

The rapid rise of online schooling during the pandemic showed the power of technology to boost learning but also highlighted the fact that British education is still in many ways an analogue system in a digital age. “It’s as if it’s still selling DVDs in the age of streaming and Netflix,” Justine Greening, the former Conservative education secretary, said.

What has struck me as I have travelled around the world researching some of the most successful education systems in the world is that Britain – and particularly England – is increasingly an outlier. In Estonia I saw how children learn robotics from the age of 7 and digital skills are woven through the whole curriculum. The system is designed to encourage 21st century competencies – creativity, problem solving team work, communication.

In Finland, I visited a primary school where children learn to spot “fake news” in specially designed media literacy classes. In Singapore and Shanghai the curriculum has been rewritten to put much more focus on creativity. In the Netherlands wellbeing is as great a priority as academic outcomes. And of course, the private schools in the UK typically offer a much broader education than many state schools do.

Reset moment

The pandemic has highlighted the flaws in the education system, but it did not create them and the school closures have made many reassess their priorities. Exams were cancelled for two years, raising questions about the future of assessment. Parents, forced to learn about fronted adverbials as they home-schooled their children, came face to face with an outdated curriculum while also acquiring a new admiration for teachers who have too often been derided by politicians.  The spiralling mental health crisis among young people has made teachers and parents wonder whether pupils’ well-being is being ignored in the race for grades.

The education system is still reeling from the impact of Covid-19 but the pandemic has also created an extraordinary opportunity. This should be a reset moment.


Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist writing for The Times of London and chair of The Times Education Commission.

You can hear more from her at the 40th COBIS Annual Conference, May 7-9, in London and online, in her plenary session, ‘Future of Education: Findings from The Times Education Commission’.



Feature Image by: stevepb on Pixabay

Support Images by : jambulboy and geralt on Pixabay


COBIS Annual Conference 2022

The COBIS Annual Conference returns in May 2022 as a face-to-face conference and exhibition with the option for virtual participation as well. Find out more here: