14 March 2019 - 16 March 2019

Modern Education: what is contemporary education for, whom should we be educating, and how is it best achieved?

Chair: Professor Stephen Toope, OC
Modern Education guests


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The purpose of education has always been contested, with tension between the development and expression of the unique individual and the needs of the economy, society and state. And this has long fed into public debates, university research and political positions. This Ditchley conference will bring together a unique range of political decision makers, moral opinion formers, technological innovators and business leaders to look at these issues afresh. There are several reasons to do this now: the global geopolitical context for education is changing – state rivalry and statecraft is back on the agenda. The technological revolution is accelerating bringing both new opportunities and new dangers. The role of women in society and the role of the family are also changing at a great rate. Finally, it is rare that these issues are discussed by leaders across silos of expertise and political divides. We will address questions such as the following.

Education, especially that funded by the state, generally aims to deliver law-abiding, cooperative, numerate and literate citizens rather than uncooperative and ill-educated outlaws. But we also need creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership for the future. Is our education system designed to deliver both the society and leadership we want and need? Is it serving both individuals and society well? What is education’s impact on social mobility? Have technological and social changes intensified the network effects of private education, for example?

It is not clear whether there is an increased incidence of mental health issues in the young or an increased level of reporting. As an example, the suicide rate in the UK has been on a generally downward trend from 1981 to the present day. Nonetheless, 5800 people committed suicide in the UK in 2017 and it is the leading cause of death between the ages of 20 and 34. Nineteen thousand teenagers were admitted to hospital for self-harm in 2016. Are we educating young people for mental health?

When it comes to personal life, should education be teaching people not only about the biology of relationships through sexual health education but their emotional, social and legal aspects? Should we be explicitly promoting stable relationships, civil partnerships and marriage for the good of future children and for general mental health and social resilience? What should education be teaching on the evolving roles of men and women and indeed on gender?

A more philosophical question is what education needs to do in order to equip people to make sense of their lives and to find meaning in them. Should this be left, in 2018 and in a world returning to serious state rivalries, to the family or to other parts of the state or purely to individuals? Is education about providing a story about meaning (for example as in a religious school) or the intellectual tools to look for that meaning? What are the appropriate limits for state and society to impose on educational institutions when it comes to education on the big issues of purpose, the legitimacy and claims of the state and the role of individuals in relation to it?

Many industrialists would contend that education is still too abstract and removed from the needs of the workplace. With the pace of technological change increasing rapidly and with the prospect of narrow applications of AI disrupting white collar as well as blue collar work, how should we be educating people to be of enduring economic value and so be able to support themselves? Is this about an increased focus on computational thinking, sciences and coding or more about flexibility and creativity? Is it a question of encouraging an appetite for and expectation of lifelong learning, with people retraining multiple times? Or should we be encouraging through education a reappraisal of different kinds of work, for example empathy, caring and creativity, given that some traditional tasks now seen as high level work will likely be automated? Linked to the questions above on meaning and purpose, but also the global environmental threats of a burgeoning human population, is there a need for a reappraisal of the ingredients of material success and the expectations people have of their lives? Or should we be optimising education in order to deliver entrepreneurial flair, risk taking and wealth creation?

The traditional concept of education is that it covers a period from around five years old to the mid-twenties for those going on to second degrees. This is now being challenged at both the outset of education and at its traditional end. Most research suggests that the life prospects of young people are shaped very early on by the quality of their environment in their early years. How can we support families to deliver the best possible early education? What are the right tools and limits for state intervention, for example on data analysis? How can we use targeted educational resources to break the chain of poorly educated families bringing up their children to face the same challenges?

The concept of a career for life is fast fading. Technological progress means it is harder and harder to be confident that a particular skill set or area of knowledge will retain its workplace value for more than a few years. How can we extend education to cover an ever longer life time of economic activity? Does front loading education still make sense? Who should pay for adult education – the state, the company or the individual? What different objectives and advantages might there be for education at different stages in people’s lives?

We have moved from a world where knowledge was scarce and localised in universities and libraries to a world where knowledge (in all forms and in varying degrees of reliability and accuracy) is available everywhere and in abundance. How does our approach to education at all stages need to adapt to this fundamental change? What is the future of universities and schools as places of education? How can we best use different forms technology – ubiquitous mobile Internet connectivity, search, data visualisation, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality – to make education ever more accessible, value for money, effective and attractive to all? Should education become more distributed and piecemeal? Should we do more to provide educational tools to families, rather than viewing education as a professionalised process that can be outsourced?

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.