We must make space for applied learning in the curriculum

We have over-balanced education towards academic learning to the detriment of vital skills

We have over-balanced education towards academic learning to the detriment of vital skills

26 Nov 2023, 5:00

This country has always had an academically-driven education system and our political debate continues to centre around that. But in recent years, an increasing focus on skills, apprenticeships and technical education demonstrates a broader truth that applied learning matters, and it matters across the whole of education. 

Young people in today’s world are constantly told by employers that a whole range of non-academic capabilities matter – whether teamwork, resilience, creativity, empathy and other skills we all need day to day. They’re told that they need to understand the world of work, of business and how our economy works so that they can prepare themselves to be part of it.

Teachers know preparation for work and employability skills matters too – and they also know that right now our education system struggles to deliver that. A staggering 79 per cent of teachers believe that today’s pupils are less prepared for the world of work compared to previous years. That’s bad from a social mobility perspective; if these skills matter, we need an education system that closes important gaps and doesn’t just ignore that they are there.

The question is how to do that effectively. The good news is that fusing more applied learning across our education system is a key way we can make real progress, and we can learn from schools that already do this well. It’s a way that our education system can also feel more relevant for students and for employers. There’s a chance to introduce more applied learning at an early age in a way that really helps children’s learning through a more stimulating approach that not only makes sense in their wider life but at the same time is also genuinely helping them get prepared for the world they’ll become part of as adults.  

Academic attainment will continue to be crucial, but it’s not enough

An important report published earlier this year by The Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) with Young Enterprise showcased a host of contributions from those already engaged in delivering applied learning. It highlighted the difference it is already making as well as the benefits of doing even more. It has been shown to boost young people’s confidence and engagement levels and contributes to better attendance records and improved academic results.

Those examples include primary schools taking part in the Young Enterprise Fiver Challenge, in which pupils are given a pledge of £5 and have to come up with ideas to make more money from it. They design logos, do market research, develop products and hone a sales pitch, providing opportunities to develop skills and practise making independent financial transactions in a controlled setting, utilising applied learning to embed financial education.

It is now up to policymakers to shape an education system that will produce the talent pool our country needs and to make sure everyone regardless of background has access to opportunity. They’ll be doing that against the backdrop of the impact Covid has had on learning but we also know that just focusing on the same narrow academic approach as in the past isn’t going to deliver the outcomes that we want.

While academic attainment will continue to be crucial, it’s not enough to enable our students to truly thrive once they’re in the workplace and pursuing opportunities. Applied learning can ensure relevance and relatability in young people’s learning at the same time as providing inspiration for potential future careers.

Let’s hope that, whichever party is in government after the next general election, those ministers can take a fresh look at our education system to make the changes we now so badly need. It’s the key to unlocking greater social mobility and equality of opportunity.

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  1. There is nothing new here that hasn’t already been around the block several times. Surely there must be evidence on what is the best way to educate kids. Stop leading worn-out teachers on an endless merry-go-round of vanity initiatives.

  2. Young people have access to knowledge and information through technology and they will be working in a world with AI. As an experienced teacher, I know that skills are far more important:
    Researching effectively to find the correct information is a skill many students currently lack. They also find it difficult to adapt skills for different contexts, to think for themselves, find solutions, learn through failure and comminucate effectively in different contexts. This is the impact of a knowledge based, target driven curriculum. I believe this approach has contributed to the epidemic of mental health problems. Children also need to understand how their brains’ algorithms work and how to manage their mental wellbeing in order to cope with life’s challenges. All these skills need to be central to the curriculum: Embeded and valued as much as academic subjects for them to be effective. Not just an add on.