Schools and opportunity – the gap is growing

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To start this week’s look at automation, together with implications for learning, schools and opportunity. The World Economic Forum and McKinsey have shared insights from Davos on the future of learning and work and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Tri-sector collaboration (government, business and civil society) was a focus of policy makers’ discussions about how we can be prepared for sweeping changes and opportunities in the workplace. The conversation quickly turned to education:

“Policy leaders immediately began discussing how education systems could be retooled to train the millions of data scientists, machine operators, IoT architects, and engineers that will be required in the future.”

The context of this conversation was manufacturing, which faces significant disruption from automation and opportunity for innovation in Economy 4.0. It will be interesting to see what form this ‘retooling’ of education systems takes, and how this will be contextualised and realised within different learning systems. It will also be interesting to see what happens to the arts within all of this.

Education systems are famously resistant to change. Indeed as we’ve seen from research into personalised learning in America recently, opposition to innovation appears to be hard-wired into the design of the system itself. The systems and structures to innovate through a culture of risk-taking, prototyping, iteration and dissemination are not built into traditional school structures. In addition, bureaucracies governed by rules, specialisation and hierarchy are also not designed to support innovation.

The idea of ‘retooling’ a system may sound attractive, but education systems are not manufacturing, and our concerns are to think they can be similarly transformed underestimates the national effort and significant investments in political will, money and time that will likely be necessary.

Sweden looks well positioned to manage the transition to automation in its economy. Automation is viewed as allowing companies to do more (ie increase efficiency and output) with the people they already have, with the mining sector the example used here. The Swedish government and workers’ unions collaborate to ensure a living wage and training programmes are in place for transitioning workers, and the comprehensive social safety net in place appears to allow innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish.

However, tensions exist. The recent influx of new immigrants from war-torn countries, many with only a basic education and not yet employable, has placed strain on a system that relies on taxes of up to 60% to sustain it. For the Swedish model to work, the social contract must remain strong. It will be interesting to follow this over the coming decades, to see what new challenges and opportunities emerge.

“… economists agree that technology is likely to polarise the labor market, dividing work into two camps: high-paying and highly skilled jobs at one end, and low-paying, low-skilled jobs on the other.”

Sourced via The Exponential View, this is a good look at a warehouse that is at the forefront of work automation. In short, the goal is constant innovation and improved efficiency, which means more robots, with human jobs changing from repetitive manual tasks to repairing the robots and packing bags before delivery. The company (Ocado) is currently testing robots to pack bags instead of humans, and argues that increased automation and improved efficiency has seen a net creation of 14,000 jobs that would not exist without robots.

So what are the implications for learning? If technology actually is likely to polarise jobs, then preparing students with the competencies needed to perform highly skilled tasks is one function.

But what about those that do not have access to these opportunities? How can we ensure that every student has the opportunity to access high-quality learning?

It’s imperative we find a way – the opportunity gap is already wide, and set to grow further.

Our next article this week comes from Brookings Brief, looking at the likely political and economic fallout from large scale automation and job disruption. The article references several pieces of research that indicate that increasing automation and computerisation of work is likely, with up to 50% of US jobs automated within 20 years, and 30% likely to be disrupted by the year 2030.

The pain will be felt by lower-skilled workers, as these are the roles most likely to be automated, and if workforce disruption is as significant as predicted, social and political turmoil is a very real possibility for decades to come. More low-skilled workers will compete for fewer positions, wages will continue to stagnate or fall, and the inequality gap will grow, raising the risk of serious social disruption. Even if work disruption is not as large as feared, social challenges will still be significant, and there will likely be implications for how governments respond, with some fearing a trend towards authoritarianism.

Let’s get in front of this by having a discussion about the coming disruption of work as a matter of urgency. We need to figure out what learning in our schools needs to look like to meet this challenge, and then understand what needs to be done to make it happen. Let’s also talk about the new positions and work tasks that will emerge as human work is augmented by machines – workers can be up-skilled and retrained. Whose responsibility is this?

Continuing in this theme, our next article from The Guardian newspaper shares growing alarm about the coming reality of automation in the British job market, and why political systems and society are almost completely unprepared for what’s about to happen. Whole regions of Britain are at risk of sweeping job losses due to automation, because clusters of at-risk industries such as retail, manufacturing, mining and agriculture lie within certain geographical areas.

The article argues that radical plans are necessary, but automation of jobs unfortunately does not appear to be on the current government’s policy agenda. If preparations were to be made, learning in schools would be at the forefront, with an attempt made to “maximise the numbers (of people) skilled enough to work at higher tiers”. In an education system that teaches children to code in a manner that is 19th century in its delivery, a radical transformation will be needed, at huge political and economic cost.

Education globally needs to be disrupted. Learning must develop a set of competencies and knowledge that will prepare students for life-long learning and enable them to adapt to what’s coming and prosper from new opportunities. The danger is that the more things stay the same in our schools and education systems, the gap between what students are learning and what they actually need to learn grows ever larger. Traditional school-based learning may lose its relevance to an even greater degree.

To conclude we have an interesting research summary piece about the risks of job automation in OECD countries. Of particular note is that training participation rates in jobs at higher risk of automation is significantly lower than those in other jobs. This is similar to research we have seen of coal miners in America turning down retraining and awaiting the reopening of their mines, despite new opportunities being available. Education gets a mention towards the end, with reference to how learning systems will need to adapt to the changes being brought about by automation and technology adoption. Details are light, but there are references to cognitive and social intelligence, and learning skills needed to function effectively in a digital context.

What is the reason for the reluctance to retrain? Is it because the jobs at the highest risk of automation are low-skilled? Is it because these workers are not accustomed to a mindset of continuous learning?

The research conducted and insights gained during the writing of this article have inspired the Indigo Schools Framework, the details of which can found in the Primer on our Resources Page. Send us an email at or complete the form below if you’d like to learn more about how the Indigo Schools Framework can be successfully applied within your school. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Linkedin for our latest updates.

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