FED National Education Summit - 1st to 4th March

David Harkin: ‘When Toby turns 18 – My hopes for the future of education’

The FED are working across sectors and in partnership with all those concerned with the future of education in this country to support the development of a long term vision and plan for education.


We are delighted to share the blog by David Harkin, CEO of 8billionideas whose mission it is to give ‘every child on the planet the skills and belief to change the world’. David, a FED Council Member, makes a passionate plea about helping children lead a more fulfilling life and a passion-led career. Through his experiences as a parent, David reflects on his hopes for the future of education and what it will look like when his son Toby is 18, in 2034. This blog is a passionate and helpful reminder about how we need to think about education and skills through a long-term lens.

When Toby turns 18 – My hopes for the future of education…

Just one year ago, our eldest son, Toby, could hardly speak a word. We found out that he suffered from ‘glue ear’, a condition which effectively stops a child from hearing. Because he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t speak. The insertion of grommets changed everything and now, after he’s completed a term in school, his language is phenomenal. He’s beginning to read, and we have fun doing maths before bed; it’s been quite an extraordinary journey for our little boy. As I now see him beginning to flourish in school, I wonder what the future will hold for him and what education will provide for him by the time he leaves school in 2034, when he’s 18 years old.

I write this blog not only as a passionate educationist who leads an organisation called 8billionideas, which exists to give every student the skills and belief to change the world, but I also write this as a parent who wants the best for their child and knows how important schools are for the development of children and equipping them for the future.

Education is undeniably going through a tremendous period of disruption, and though our focus should be on keeping our staff, children, and a society safe, one eye needs tp be towards the future. This disruption is the perfect environment for radical change. I think now is the perfect time to discuss what the future of education should look like. Without a long-term vision, nothing can be achieved. Winston Churchill once said, ‘all decisions in politics should have a 25 years lens’, and this has never been the case in education. Once we’ve got that long-term vision, as a community inside and outside of education, we can make it happen.

My wishes for Toby and our 2-year-old Harry are like many other parents’ and educationalist’ wishes for their children. I would like him and his brother to find their passions in life, be committed to whatever they choose, add value to whatever they decide to act on and fundamentally – be happy. I’m a big believer that if a child follows their passion, they will end up being fulfilled and, most likely, in a career that they are dedicated to. I believe the reason why currently 80% of people in the UK are dissatisfied with their day job is that they didn’t pursue their passion.

Being happy isn’t only beneficial for ourselves, but also for our economy and our businesses. Happiness in the workforce allows us to improve productivity and the quality of our work, which in the future, will help the UK build world-class businesses that provide products and services to the world.

So, if I want Toby and Harry to be happy when they leave school, to be clear on what they’re passionate about, and have universally useful skills – what do I hope education will look like in 2034? I think I would start with the following:

Passion Departments

Students need more time to explore their passions and be curious about new things. I would like to empower our young people to explore their passions and find the big questions they want answers to. When my boys are 18, I want to ask them a simple question – what are you passionate about?

Schools need to develop their career departments into ‘passion departments’, with tenfold the resources they currently have, and a widened scope to include primary school. By the time a student leaves school, they should not only be clearer on their passions, but also believe that they can find a career which is linked to one of their passions.

Quality content for students 24/7

Our society seems to have forgotten that a huge amount of learning goes on outside of school. I want there to be an appreciation that learning can and happens around the clock. My boys learn from their interactions with other people, what myself and my wife Jenny tell them about, and even what they see on television or the internet.

Of course, this means that parents should pay attention to the content their children are consuming, and people should be more accountable for the content they publish. Unfortunately, children believe what they see – they have no reason not to. Even though Toby is so young, I already have to explain or correct poor, misleading, or even false messaging of some of the content he is consuming.

Appreciation of marginal gains/times in education

Time is, without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest problem in education. However, it’s the only common currency which is consistent across all 8 billion people on the planet and indeed every single one of our schools. We have to start valuing every minute in education and consider the theory of marginal gains. I believe countless minutes can be found in a school day by being more agile, changing processes, removing processes, looking at challenges from different perspectives. In brilliantly busy environments such as schools, it’s easy to not recognise that tiny ideas can have a big impact. I want schools to actively seek and implement these ideas, to fundamentally find more time to create even more exciting and memorable lessons for the students. I know this is within every teacher’s capability – imagine how better our lessons could be if they had more time.

I would hope that by 2034 when Toby leaves school, every school will have the right approach to seeking out and embracing marginal gains to find back those countless minutes but do to this, we have to learn from some of the most innovative sectors and industries in the world. I hope that our teachers will be able to dedicate 50% of their time to creating exceptional lessons.

A child goes to two schools

A child is only at school for 15% of their week. There is plenty of time for us to educate them when they’re not at school and I hope by 2034, people will have realised this. I believe that by this time, a child should have a physical school that they go to and also a virtual extended education. This extended education wouldn’t teach lessons, but address areas of skills and extracurricular in a creative way.

By 2034, every child should be attending both a virtual and a physical school – it might be the same one. A virtual school could take responsibility for different areas of development for a young person, such as soft skills or extracurricular activities, to some extent, and the physical school could concentrate on the sense of belonging and community – something that has evidently proved to be crucial in 2020.

Agile Setups

Finally, I hope that by the time that Toby leaves school, they’re the most agile and adaptive environments in society. They should not be stipulated by the way that things were done but should change quickly to the needs of a child. They are not a coffee shop which just serves white coffee, which they are now, but a coffee shop that sells whatever you want and whatever the child needs. The only way that this can be achieved is with complete agility. Agility in the way a school is set up, the way it finances itself, and the way that it teaches.

I would hope that by 2034, the way that schools are set up is completely different. I would love brave approaches to have been tried and tested by this point. CEOs of Schools to concentrate on the overall running and Heads of Education to improve what’s going on in this sector. CFO to run the accpumts. CIOs in every school to make sure innovation is embedded. My list could go on….Many will be reading this and have no idea what a CFO (Chief Finanial Officer) or CIO (Chief Innovation Officer) and that demonstrates the exact problem.

These are just some areas I hope will be embraced in education in the next 14 years. However, these are just my opinions – what I love about the work that FED is leading is that it is crowdsourcing opinions and ideas from so many different directions. Ultimately, this will enable achieving a very clear vision; then, the resolution of that vision will become clearer over time.

As a passionate educationalist, I believe that now is the time for these discussions to happen. In the next 20 years it will be the time to get us to that vision. I personally don’t want to be part of our generation that didn’t take this window of change and grasp it with both hands. As a father, I want the system to evolve so that my boys have the greatest chance of happiness. I hope by the time Toby is 18 in 2034, we would have collectively moved things forward and his education experience would be vastly different.

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Thursday 17th September

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