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The Times Education Commission - Why The UK Urgently Needs Educational Reform

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In May 2021, The Times Education Commission was set up to ‘examine the future of education in light of the Covid-19 crisis, declining social mobility, new technology and the changing nature of work.’ and undertook a year long study into whether our current education system was suitable for the 21st century workplace. A team of '22 commissioners with successful backgrounds in business, education, science, the arts and government' were enlisted to support Rachel Sylvester (Times political columnist ), who chaired the project. The team successfully engaged the help and support of many of our leading education experts and thought leaders, as well as successful entrepreneurs such as Sir James Dyson and Sir Richard Branson, ten former education secretaries and two former prime ministers. PwC were also involved and obtained important data from UK businesses and schools in order to give further insight.

The aim of the year long study was to address the low productivity, poor social mobility and shortage of crucial skills that it was felt were holding Britain back. John Witherow (Editor of The Times) said at the Times Education Summit in May 2022 that the commission wanted to ‘take stock, learn from others, but also celebrate what we do well.’ The commission represents the broadest inquiry into education ever held in Britain.

The year long study examined 10 key areas:

1. The purpose of education.

2. Social mobility (to include the attainment gap, early-years).

3. What children learn (the curriculum).

4. How children learn (teaching and pedagogy).

5. Assessment.

6. Education in the community (to include family, lifelong learning, classroom of the future, faith schools and the environment).

7. Mental health and wellbeing (to include character, brain development, food and fitness).

8. The role of AI and technology.

9. Exclusion, alternative provision and special educational needs.

10. Further education and higher education (including skills, employment needs and apprenticeships).

In May this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the Times Education Summit at The Times HQ, which presented the headline findings from the PwC data and heard from a variety of key speakers. Business leaders and educators were brought together to discuss the reforms needed for the 21C workplace as The Times wanted to ‘canvas opinion and inform the work of The Times Education Commission as it draws up its recommendations’. What I heard at the summit was compelling stuff - both incredibly concerning and exciting. It was clear from the findings that we were at a crucial point in our education system - something needed to change and quickly.

Results of the Survey

In association with PwC, businesses up and down the country were asked what they felt about how our current education system prepared students for the workplace. The responses presented a bleak future, for both our students and our economy: in short if we didn’t address the urgent need to modernise our curriculum and assessment systems to better suit the needs of the workplace, our economy would suffer, and the huge amount of potential in our youth to contribute to a thriving British economy would continue to be wasted because of a system of education that did not provide the right circumstances for their talents to be recognised and nurtured.

At A Glance

87% of companies say their organisation would benefit if young people had greater clarity on the different paths from education to employment

50% of businesses say reimagining the education system to better meet their needs would mean they could contribute to a more resilient UK economy

85% of those consulted either have or expect to have shortages in skills that are crucial for the success in the modern world with the greater predicted gap between current and in 12 months time being in creativity and entrepreneurship.

89% of businesses say that is it important that an assessment system assesses abilities beyond academic performance.

1 in 6 businesses take no consideration of GCSE, A-Level or university degree grades when recruiting new graduates, school and college leavers.

98% of businesses currently use or plan to use their own assessment techniques to recruite new graduates, school and college leavers.

GCSE and A-Level Examinations - A Question of Credibility and Confinement

A crucial point discussed at the summit was the scrapping of GCSEs in favour of a more rounded, holistic assessment that took into account more than, as Euan Blair (yes Tony’s son) called it, a ‘one shot’ snapshot of learning.

Prof Bill Lucas and his team at Rethinking Assessment agree and have recently introduced their vision of a Leaner Profile which The Times Education Commission supports. It is currently being trialled in schools.

The Learner Profile seems to me to be a brilliant way for our children to showcase all that they are; it’s holistic, clear and visually appealing, and I see it as a type of fancier LinkedIn profile - in fact I’d quite like one of these myself! We did have something similar once - who can recall the maroon and gold Record of Achievement? I’ve still got mine from 1992!

I see the Learner Profile as the new improved 21C version. It is something our digitally savvy children can relate to and therefore become invested in, enabling them to get creative with their professional profile. Moreover, because it tells businesses more of the information they are saying they need, the profile is more likely to get our young people a job. The Learner Profile does includes examinations, but they are one part of a larger professional jigsaw.

Some felt that GCSE's in particular were unnecessary and damaging. We are outliers in the world for testing children at age 16 and there were many reasons why it was felt that getting rid of GCSEs in all subjects in favour of a literacy and numeracy check instead was the way forward. It was pointed out by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University for example that we were asking children at 14 and 16 years old to choose subject specialisms when biologically their brains were not yet mature enough to make that decision. We were then requiring them to sit life-defining exams at 16 and 18 when psychologically they were at their most vulnerable. Not only did it not make sense but it seemed pretty unfair, especially when children's well-being has suffered so much since the pandemic. As Geoff Barton (General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders) pointed out, in the last 20 years our children's mental health has suffered enormously with CAMHS stretched beyond their capacity. He spoke of the need to focus on prevention and said that while we didn't know precisely how to prevent many mental illnesses, we did know that there were many risk factors that contributed to them, academic pressure and a fear of failure being just two of them.

Sir Charlie Mayfield (Chairman of QA and former Chairman of the John Lewis partnership ) stated ‘GCSEs tell people you are good at some things and bad at others. They aid and abet an over-specialisation at A-Level’. He suggested there could be some ‘huge creative solutions’ if we got rid of GCSEs but kept A-levels with a difference. He spoke of 6th formers who might acquire certificates or diplomas in problem solving or data analysis for example.

We were told how most students went on to take A-levels in the same courses they’d done well at in GCSE, or went on to take degree courses in the same subjects they’d chosen at A-Level, so it is easy to see how our narrowing of the curriculum as early as 14 and further still at 16, could lead to pupils setting off down a potentially suboptimal career path and not fully exploring or mining their capabilities. Our economy could therefore be losing diamond recruits in a particular field, young people who perhaps hadn’t realised their potential at the time they had to make the choice. No doubt Mr Mayfield and others like him will welcome the first recommendation of the report, which is a British Baccalaureate with breadth of study and vocational skills supported via a more flexible post 16 curriculum.

It surprised me to learn just how many employers were using their own in-house assessments as part of the recruitment process (a whopping 74%) with many citing that they could not rely on GCSEs, A-levels or degree qualifications to provide them with the necessary information with which to recruit - indeed many graduates or school leavers were lacking in some very vital skills and needed further training. Quite an indictment of our curricula!

Sir Charlie Mayfield again, whose company offers training in technology, pointed out that during an intensive computer bootcamp course many participants admitted that they’d learnt more during those 6 weeks than in the 3 years they’d spent following a computer science undergraduate course. Which begs the question, why go to university? Especially when that course is going to cost thousands and thousands of pounds only to be unfit for purpose?

I can relate to some extent with my own experience. Back in 1999, I gained a Masters in French and German from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. It was a brilliant course, and I don’t think I’d have got the same education from simply upping sticks and immersing myself among the French and Germans for five years, although admittedly I’d have been more fluent. I loved university and would still go if I had my time again, but my degree course did not get me fully ‘job -ready’. I was dismayed to find that although my MA from a well-known university usually impressed employers and gave them to assume I was fairly bright, it wasn’t enough. They also required digital skills, of which I had none. By the time I left university, I had written one word processed essay in a random computer lab somewhere in the Sciencey bit - the norm was for us to write up essays by hand - so I didn't have a clue how to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc; I barely used the internet and didn’t write emails (hotmail had just come into being). After several months, I was forced to undertake further study with a post- grad course in Oxford where I learnt all the digital skills needed for the millennial workplace, but at a cost to my pocket.

Practical Learning

Today, degree apprenticeships are the new Oxbridge. Applied learning is what it’s all about. This combination of theory and practice is vital, especially in the more obvious subjects such as engineering. Business leaders and educators at the summit were in agreement that we should focus on the application of skills just as much as knowledge, both at school and university.

At the Dyson Institute of Engineering Technology for example, they pay their undergraduates to go to university for part of the week and work for them in the rest, thereby ensuring that theory goes hand in hand with practice. Dyson spoke of his students having cars and enjoying skiing holidays!

Savvy undergrads know that they are better off aligning themselves to a company within the industry of their choice early on in order to acquire those much sought-after applied skills that will set them apart from the competition. Dyson’s university is oversubscribed by 14 times incidentally, but a poll he ran informed him that this wasn’t merely down to the fact that his undergraduates didn’t have to pay as he'd expected, it was because they were making exciting products. The students and their parents wanted to be a part of that. Passion. A great career driver if ever there was one.

Dame Kate Bingham, a British venture capitalist and former Head of the government vaccines task force also called for the need to make learning real and said that the UK needed to 'massively enhance the level of practical training at school and university’. She spoke a great deal of sense about allowing children to learn via the application of knowledge, making learning much more hands on and celebrating failure. Sir James Dyson echoed this stating that ‘no progress is made without experiment’. He spoke of his wish to see the UK adopt an assessment system that credited effort and experimentation just as much as the end result. He spoke of the importance of failure in his industry and the importance of having the resilience to move forward, citing the 5000 attempts he’d made in building his famous vacuum cleaner. Dyson also bemoaned the fact that DT was not treated as a serious subject in schools nor valued as a subject by universities. Worryingly, he told us that the UK is short of about 60K engineers and this obviously has huge implications for our manufacturing industry. In contrast 40% of graduates in Singapore now have engineering degrees and the country is therefore a major player in the engineering industry. This, Dyson felt, was down to the Singapore government placing a huge emphasis on engineering in education and encouraging the manufacturing industry. Placing DT in the same bracket as cookery like we do in the UK is clearly not going to help us achieve similar results.

Many during the summit referred to the UK obsession with university and anti-apprenticeship snobbery. Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems is quoted in The Times Education Commission report, saying:"Fifty years ago we had a society where apprenticeships were both valued and important, respected and recognised. They went through a period where there was a whole shift towards, if you hadn’t gone to university to study an academic subject, somehow you were getting a second-grade education, and apprenticeships were socially downgraded as a result of that. We threw the pendulum too far in one direction and I think that pendulum is now swinging back.” If the YouGov poll the final report refers to is anything to go by, I think he’s right. Only 4% of people surveyed believed that a university undergraduate course offered the best start in life. A whopping 45% felt that the best route was an apprenticeship with 44% giving both equal weighting. It's clear we need more Alan Sugars et al nurturing our young talent.

I very much enjoyed listening to Tim Bevan of Working Title films at the summit. He was so fed up of the lack of employable people emerging from our schools, universities and colleges in the UK film industry that he set up his own post 16 school in Islington: the London Screen Academy. At 16 years old, young people can study everything and anything to do with film and crucially learn in the practical way that their chosen career necessitates. Tim stated that there was a skills shortage in virtually every single area of the British film industry right now, and that the workforce was an ageing population. He said that not many people benefitted from university degrees in his industry and that most of the learning was done on the job or learning at a school such as LSA. He has recently extended his college courses to 3 years instead of 2, saying that it was hugely positive to enable some teenagers to stay on until 19 years old before entering the workplace. Interestingly, LSA does not demand English and Maths passes at GCSE as a pre-requisite. Students need 5 passes at a grade 6 or above, but these passes can be in any subject and are accompanied by a selection interview. I was surprised at this, but I guess it makes sense given that in the film industry other subjects probably have more relevance and importance. Key Maths and English skills do still continue to be taught at LSA, but do not hinder a budding Scorsese or special effects whizz from obtaining a place in the first place. This makes a lot of sense to me and will no doubt come as a huge relief to some of our young people who struggle with the core subjects. On the subject of a move to practical learning and apprenticeships, one of the 12 key recommendations in the report is that we introduce ‘career academies’ - elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry so LSA could very well find itself a template for these.


We heard from CEOs and entrepreneurs who repeated the same point: that it was a person’s ability to apply skills that mattered the most, that their creativity was key and that character was crucial.

Carolyn Dawson, CEO of the Founders Forum Group stated she would ‘hire attitude over skills every time’. She was not impressed by awards such as the Duke of Edinburgh for example as she felt these kinds of accreditations played to the privileged.

This led to a discussion on social mobility and the importance of lower socio-economic groups having access to extra-curricular activities and being taught the so called ‘soft skills’ that many of their middle-class counterparts grow up with. The evidence showed that whilst much has been done to support diversity, these innate soft skills still give middle class recruits an advantage, both initially in a given career and with promotions. The underprivileged did not have the same networking opportunities as their counterparts and due to budget constraints, many Heads have had to cut access to career advice. To address this inequality, several companies now conduct outreach programmes in disadvantaged areas to teach children about their industry and/or company, seeking to impress upon students that the option to work with them is very much within their reach and that a diverse workforce was very much desired. Evelyn Forde MBE, Headteacher at Copthall School and TES Headteacher of the Year 2020, spoke of how her school seeks to ‘ribbon’ soft skills through the curriculum and importance of finding time and space in the curriculum to ensure this is done.

Justine Greening, former Secretary of State for Education and Founder of the Social Mobility Pledge, said that the ‘grass roots innovation and knowledge IS out there - we just need to find it.’ She spoke of her own experience at an accountancy firm where after some time, they audited the best-performing new recruits. The data showed that there was zero correlation between the recruits’ academic background and their performance in the accountancy firm. However, tellingly, those who had been the most successful in the workplace all had three things in common: they had all had a Saturday job or a paper round at school, they had all been in a sports' team or orchestra, and they had all faced some sort of adversity in their lives - further support for Duckworth’s deliberate practice and grit.


There was a brilliant debate on technology at the summit. It was discussed how 10 years ago coding was all the rage and how schools still tend to focus on coding, but as one speaker pointed out, the technology industry moves so quickly that anything taught today will be old news tomorrow. The panel didn’t really get into what precisely they felt should be taught in our primaries and secondaries today, but there was an agreement that schools (pupils and teachers) should focus on working with artificial intelligence for greater efficiency with systems and efficacy of teaching and learning. Laurie Forcier of Educate Ventures Research is working on a system for example that tells the teacher which children in class are actively reflecting and which ones are disengaged. How transforming might it be to know for sure whether a pupil in your class is fully engaged or actually just looking like they are? I’d like to think I am observant enough to know this without the help of a computer, but maybe I don’t.

Priya Lakshani of Century Tech explained that the key point was ‘AI augmenting the HI (human intelligence) - that AI was there to support and free up teachers’ time.’ With the data that her online learning app Century Tech obtains for example, teachers are enabled to be much more accurate with interventions.

Baroness Martha Lane Fox summed up the thoughts of the tech panel overall. It's one that has been talked about by educators for some time now, and according to the experts, remains very much the case: "All of us are saying we need to double down on being human."

The 12 Recommendations of The Times Education Commission Report

  1. British Baccalaureate offering broader academic and vocational qualifications at 18, with parity in funding per pupil in both routes, and a slimmed-down set of exams at 16 to bring out the best in every child.

  2. An “electives premium” for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport and a national citizen’s service experience for every pupil, with volunteering and outdoor pursuits expeditions to ensure that the co-curricular activities enjoyed by the most advantaged become available to all.

  3. A new cadre of Career Academies — elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry — mirroring the academic sixth forms that are being established and a new focus on creativity and entrepreneurialism in education to unleash the economic potential of Britain.

  4. A significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and a unique pupil number from birth, to level the playing field before children get to school. A library in every primary school.

  5. An army of undergraduate tutors earning credit towards their degrees by helping pupils who fall behind to catch up.

  6. A laptop or tablet for every child and a greater use of artificial intelligence in schools, colleges and universities to personalise learning, reduce teacher workload and prepare young people better for future employment.

  7. Wellbeing should be at the heart of education, with a counsellor in every school and an annual wellbeing survey of pupils to encourage schools to actively build resilience rather than just support students once problems have arisen.

  8. Bring out the best in teaching by enhancing its status and appeal with better career development, revalidation every five years and a new category of consultant teachers, promoted within the classroom, as well as a new teaching apprenticeship.

  9. A reformed Ofsted that works collaboratively with schools to secure sustained improvement rather than operating through fear and a new “school report card” with a wider range of metrics including wellbeing, school culture, inclusion and attendance to unleash the potential of schools.

  10. Better training for teachers to identify children with special educational needs, a greater focus on inclusion and a duty on schools to remain accountable for the pupils they exclude to draw out the talent in every child.

  11. New university campuses in fifty higher education “cold spots”, including satellite wings in FE colleges, improved pay and conditions in the FE sector and a transferable credit system between universities and colleges to boost stalled British productivity.

  12. A 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures, putting education above short-term party politics and bringing out the best in our schools, colleges and universities.

The Times Education Commission report represents an incredibly valuable body of work for the future of our education and economy. Let us hope that the policy makers are listening and set about acting upon the recommendations that the report suggests - after all these proposals are a summary of the collective thoughts of the three key stakeholders: educators, businesses and our children.

References and Further Reading

Times Education Commission - Bringing Out The Best

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