February 2021 edition: A Bridge to the Future

A Bridge to the Future

The capacity of people to look optimistically into the future, even when the present is deeply challenging, is perhaps one of the most remarkable and uplifting aspects of human behaviour. Perhaps then we should not be surprised that it feels like people within education are increasingly lifting their eyes to the horizon.

We’ve been doing the same at CST too. We were proud to share our new white paper, ‘A Bridge to the Future’ (Cruddas & Rollett, 2021) just a few weeks ago. The name was carefully chosen, for reasons I’ll outline below.

Thinking about the future isn’t new territory for us. Leora has written extensively on aspects of education reform, most recently including her work on trusts as new civic structures (Cruddas, 2020), which is being increasingly used as a reference point by colleagues in trusts and policy makers.

I believe one key part of the bridge to the future is already in place: school trusts.

Steve Rollett

It is clear that Covid-19 has prompted a range of stakeholders to ask questions about what the pandemic has revealed and what changes might need to be made as a result.

There are lots of ideas floating aground about what a ‘post-pandemic’ education system might look like, ranging from the role of Edtech to the long-term future of qualifications. Many of these debates are welcome and an entirely healthy sign of a system making sense of what has happened over the past twelve months, but I’m going to offer a tentative constructive challenge to help us on the way towards this brighter future.

My observation is that there is a tendency to dislocate past, present and future; a bias towards future-thinking that is not necessarily coherently connected to what has come before or aligned with other aspects of our projections about the future. Take, for example, debates about curriculum reform. Too frequently these debates consist of superficial calls that ‘we need to have more X in the curriculum’. But when we dig into the substance of some policy proposals, they are not always as coherent as we need them to be if they are to deliver for children.

This, from Dylan Wiliam (2018), draws on evidence from cognitive science to problematise common claims made when future gazing about the curriculum:

"We are frequently told that young people of today are radically different from those of previous generations. We are told that they are, in Marc Prensky’s terms, digital natives rather than digital immigrants and therefore need to learn in different ways from their predecessors. We are told they cannot work on one thing for a sustained period because they are multitaskers. We are told they love to customize their world (hence the huge market in smartphone ringtones), and so the curriculum needs to be personalized to their interests and needs. We are told that they think and process information differently, and the school curriculum needs to reflect this. All this is plausible, but it is nonsense. For all intents and purposes, the brains of young people today are the same as the brains of young people thirty years ago.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that reform isn’t needed, or that all questions can be resolved by appeal to cognitive science, but I am saying we need to ensure the future we build is grounded in more than intuition and rhetoric.

We think there are four areas of risk for policy makers as we forge this better future:

  • Lack of policy robustness – proposals that do not build capacity to weather future challenges.

  • Lack of systems thinking – piecemeal proposals can be incoherent.

  • Unintended consequences – proposals may have a deleterious impact elsewhere.

  • ‘Self-evident’ arguments – proposals can lack a clear evidence base.

In ‘A Bridge to the Future’, we make the case that it is precisely because the plans we make now are so important that we need to make sure policy proposals address these four risks. To that end, we outline a framework to test policy proposals in order to ensure that they are:

  • Designed to create robustness by developing the capacity to cope with future perturbations.

  • Located within systems-thinking so that interactions within parts of the system are brought into view.

  • Considering the possible unintended consequences in order that they can be mitigated, or the proposal abandoned if it is not intentionally building coherence.

  • Designed to draw on best evidence we have while also having a clear ambition for the system and a sense of urgency.

By approaching education reform in this way, and drawing on the notion of hindsight, we hope to help trusts and policy makers trace a coherent path between past, present and future. We hope this will avoid the trap of creating policy that is disconnected with the present and is therefore impossible – either because it has already been ruled out for good reason or because the trajectory to the proposed policy would be difficult from our current position. Hindsight allows us to bridge from then, to now, to the future.

I hope this gives you a sense of why the concept of ‘A Bridge to the Future’ is so important, and why this is the title of our latest white paper. It is also the theme for CST’s conference in April. We believe this future focused work is vitally important and urgent and we will be exploring it further in a range of of papers in the coming months.

It is also important, however, to remember there are positives on which to build, including the recent work on the Early Career Framework, curriculum and assessment.

And, as a final thought, I believe one key part of the bridge to the future is already in place: school trusts. Recent research from Ofsted (Mujis & Sampson, 2021) shows the impact trusts have had during the pandemic and there is every reason to believe trusts will continue to go from strength to strength.

Accordingly, the brighter future we are seeking to make for children and young people doesn’t start with what we do next year or next month, it starts with what we do now. You, and the children you serve, are already crossing that bridge to the future. As ever, we will be there to support you.

References

Cruddas, L. (2020) Systems of Meaning: Three Nested Leadership Narratives for School Trusts. CST. https://cstuk.org.uk/assets/CST-Publications/10027_CST_Three_Nested_Leadership%20_White_Paper%20(002).pdf

Cruddas, L. & Rollett, S. (2021) ‘A Bridge to the Future’. CST. https://cstuk.org.uk/assets/link_boxes/cst_policy_positions/ICE_10061_CST_A_Bridge_To_The_Future_Whitepaper.pdf

Mujis, D. & Sampson, K. (2021). The trust in testing times: the role of multi-academy trusts during the pandemic. Ofsted https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2021/01/19/the-trust-in-testing-times-the-role-of-multi-academy-trusts-during-the-pandemic/

Wiliam, D. (2018) Creating the schools our children need. Learning Sciences International. West Palm Beach, Fl.