A curriculum that promotes problem-solving and encourages real-world experiences would be a lot better for the modern world pupil will enter. This article and the image used were both originally published by the Tes.

by Steve and Paula Kenning, CEOs of Aspirations Academies Trust

Lockdown and its impact on education has been an evolving national discussion – and one that has resulted in endless mixed messages from ministers.

As the CEOs of Aspirations Academies Trust, the government’s coronavirus briefings and department updates were a staple of our daily news diet.

However, as the days and weeks have passed, it was clear the government would have been better prepared to cope with this crisis if the curriculum the current incumbents had experienced was more focused on problem-solving and collaboration.

What we have witnessed unfold before us is a string of ministers who are the product of an antiquated education system that has not changed since Victorian times and is no longer fit for purpose.

Perhaps, having scrapped GCSE and A-level examinations for this summer and now contemplating doing the same next summer, the government should use the coronavirus upheaval to modernise our curriculum and scrap standardised testing.

It is a view shared by US education expert Tom Vander Ark, the CEO of Getting Smart and former executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who recently urged that: ‘’It’s time to end a century of standardised testing and focus instead on helping young people do work that matters.’’

Steve & Paula Kenning, CEOs of Aspirations Academies Trust.


A modern education system

So what does an education system that is tailored for the 21st century, with a focus on problem solving and teamwork, look like?

For a long time, we have known that there is a disconnect for most young people between the standardised testing regime and the requirements for success in their future lives.

For this reason, as founders and leaders of Aspirations Academies Trust, we have spent several years developing a new curriculum, “No Limits: curriculum for success in the 21st century”, which is taught in key stages 2 and 3.

The premise here is that the knowledge we learn is applied to real-world issues through both single subject lessons and also through trans-discipline assignments.

This has led to much more challenge and engagement; continued examination success has been a happy by-product, rather than the sole focus, of the curriculum.

Real-world learnings

One other big focus is our engagement with real-world businesses.

For several years, all our Year 12 students have spent one day per week, which represents 20 per cent of their learning time, working with real employees on real-world projects. We have worked with over 50 different companies on projects.

As students work in small groups with real workers, they not only develop an insight into a wide range of jobs and how people work, they also develop their future skills. Most importantly, local industries are involved in the development of the curriculum.

End standardised testing

Our experience in developing such an innovative curriculum has led us firmly to the conclusion that standardised testing is not the be all and end all of assessing students’ performance.

Young people at the point at which they leave school need to be able to demonstrate that they are widely read, they are able to analyse and evaluate data in a range of forms, that they are highly numerate and have the skills to thrive in work.

While there may be an argument for testing some of these requirements, the wholesale approach to testing needs to be challenged profoundly.

A ready-made replacement? 

The ideal replacement already exists in academia.

Anyone studying for a PhD has to present evidence of their work and then experience a detailed viva or interview.

Students at the end of Year 13 could present a portfolio of work, either across a range of subjects or related to a particular area such as medicine, showing their research, their understanding and application of their knowledge.

Such an interview, presented to a mixed group of educationalists and business/industry leaders, would test the validity of a student’s work and also allow them to demonstrate many of the ‘future skills’ required in today’s workplaces.

The pandemic is already making us act and think differently, and this will almost certainly escalate, the longer the disruption caused to education continues.

The important thing is that after it is all over, we do not go back to the bad old ways.

Steve Kenning and Paula Kenning are the co-founders of The Aspirations Academies Trust