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The future of schools

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 12 April 2016


How could schools evolve in the future?

Schools have two main roles: (i) helping the student to function in society, such as in employment and (ii) helping the student's development in their physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities

These roles have evolved since the Industrial Revolution began around 1750 in the UK. Before then, most people had very little formal education because children learnt their farming trade by working alongside their parents in the field and so learnt by doing.

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The Industrial Revolution took children away from that informal learning environment and put them into schools. These were run on factory lines to prepare children for work in the factories and (later on) offices.

Therefore, with the rise of manufacturing (gradually replacing farming as the main source of employment), schools became "factories of the mind" to provide basic literacy. The key characteristics of that era were synchronization, uniformity and hierarchy. Hours and minutes (rather than seasons) determined life; children were all expected to begin their schooling at the same age and then progress through a specified set of arrangements, and the school (like the workplace) was organized on strict lines of authority (even the organization of each class room)

But that industrial era is ending and so what is now the role for schools? Here are four scenarios of what could happen.

First, "Business as Usual":this sees the continuation of the present system. This would be the preference of conservatives (such as radio talk back presenters). But the current educational system is not standing still. It is very difficult to see how the schooling system could be frozen in the present to ward off the risk of future changes. The wider social and economic environment is now changing so fast that schools would become even more out of touch with what is required to meet the two roles set out above.

Schools now exist – for good or ill – in an era of excessive consumerism, smart phones and social media. The next generation of students are the "iPad generation" and even before they arrive for their first day at school, they will have clear ideas on what ought to be their learning landscape. IPads are a fun way to learn and they will expect schools to provide an equally interesting learning environment – otherwise they will soon become bored and alienated.

Second there is "Consumers' Choice". This is derived from the importance of the market and the importance of "choice". Therefore, under this scenario state schools could be abolished and there would be the expansion of the private sector. Each school would be seen as a business, with school principals being the chief executive officers.

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In short, as American economist Milton Friedman suggested half a century ago, the state should pay for education, parents alone choose the education, and a variety of schools should compete for market share.

Perhaps the parents or guardians could have vouchers, which they could spend at the school of their choosing. Teachers could be allowed to take part in "management buyouts" and so have a direct financial interest in their school doing well.

Third, there is the "Nation-Building" scenario. Schools could be seen as one of the few unifying institutions in an increasingly fragmented society and as the central purveyor of national values. Therefore, schools could be placed under some form of tighter national government regulation

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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