Planning for an unknown future: Vision


The future can be thought of as a range of alternative destinations, only one of which will be reached. A challenge for educationalists is to visualise which that will be and how that location will affect schools and teaching.


‘Beyond Current Horizons’ (BCH) is a means by which a clearer and more accurate road map to that future destination can be followed. This should improve understanding of what the world will be like after 2015, assisting the planning not only of curricula, but also of teacher training and even the design of future schools. Funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, BCH has commissioned a research programme that considers challenges facing the future planning of educational provision.


The first of those research papers – Future Issues in Socio-Technical Change for UK Education – suggests that some future trends are obvious, even if others are as yet unclear. For instance, Moore’s Law – that computing power doubles about every two years – will continue. Another assumption is that there will continue to be a disruptive technological development once a decade that alters the IT and related industries. Other ‘givens’ are that computing and biosciences will move closer together, with the possibility that a computing system could be built from networks of living neurons. It is also very likely that ‘smart drugs’ will be widely used to improve cognitive abilities.


From these examples it becomes clearer that science and technology will both become even more important to society and that a wider general understanding of related basic principles is essential if the UK is to remain a major economic nation. Schools will consequently need to provide all pupils with a higher general understanding of science than is presently the case. There will also need to be improved comprehension of ‘systems thinking’, which will only be possible if pupils also attain a higher level of scientific literacy and mathematical competence than is the case today.


Stephen Heppell – visiting professor of new media environments at Bournemouth University and an advisor to education authorities on future planning – believes that, in general, insufficient thought is currently being given within education to social and technological development, or, consequently, how that should influence teaching practice, curriculum development and school design.


Heppell suggests that it is important to go beyond envisioning how technologies will interact with society, to consider how we want them to interact and what preferred objectives can be achieved. “What has happened in the past is that people have harnessed technology to do the things they always did – for example, using technology to pass exams a little better, without criticising what the exams were testing,” says Heppell. “Or to teach more students at a time.” Too often schools merely try to carry on doing what they always did, merely using technology to be more productive in doing so. “Existing practice is not questioned enough,” he argues.


Planning should become more strongly values-based, while reflecting on how technologies change values, says Heppell. “You have to ask what values are going to matter in the future. Some technologies have changed values. In the past, uniformity was important under the factory model. You did not want eccentrics. Now you clearly don’t want uniformity – there is no job for the uniform person. So we need children who can be ingenious, who can manage internationally, who can communicate internationally, so they can manage outsourcing. Technology has changed those values.


Being creative is not enough. They [workers of the future] have to be collaborative. They have to be good at leadership – and good at ‘follow-ship’, because they can’t all be good leaders. And they have got to be good communicators – globally, across continents, across ages, across time. All the schools I am working with have a metaset on top of that, which says they have to produce students who want to have knowledge and so much that they want to carry on to be lifelong learners.”


Barry Sheerman, chairman of the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, shares this view that values must sit at the heart of planning for the future in education. Sheerman wants schools to think more about producing well-rounded citizens with the skills and outlook to thrive in a future society: people who are interested in the world around them.


Where school planning has impressed Sheerman and his select committee has been where schools have a 50 year perspective – he mentions Knowsley as an education authority that has this. Sheerman urges schools to think seriously about what competencies they want to produce amongst their students – and not merely to rely on past experience of what was done and how.


In Sheerman’s view, schools and education authorities should consider more than the needs of the UK economy in the future and how schools help produce the workers for the future world. It is equally important to plan for the desired social outcomes in terms of the personality of those citizens and to help them shape their place in tomorrow’s world.


You have to navigate your future,” stresses Sheerman. “You have got to have that imagination to know what you aspire to. When he was education secretary, David Miliband always talked about transformation – about the capacity to transform the lives of children attending the schools, to transform the community and the capacity to transform the environment, through sustainability. Transformation has to be the key concept.”


Many of the principles stressed by Sheerman and Heppell can and should be applied more widely today, not only in planning for the further distant future, says Lord Mawson. As Andrew Mawson he was a founder of the highly regarded Bromley-by-Bow community health centre and set-up Andrew Mawson Partnerships to promote more co-ordinated development of schools and other community resources.


Mawson believes that moving schools, particularly failing schools, forward must involve rooting them more firmly within their communities. “Its about people and relationships if you want to change those very difficult schools,” says Mawson. “It’s not just about structures. [It’s about] the relationships within schools and with key players in the surrounding areas. Secondly, you have to go for quality.” That quality must be of design, of staffing and of partnership working, he says.


This view is echoed by Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for adults’ and children’s services for the Improvement and Development Agency. Cozens says that making schools part of their community, with shared use of facilities and helping to make the local community a stronger place is a fundamental aspect of the purpose of a new school.


There seems to be agreement, then, that planning for the future has to both keep a firm hold of the vision of where education should be post-2015, but also have short-term aims that also fit within an agreed values-system, improve educational and social outcomes and get a variety of public bodies to work more effectively together.


While academics and public sector leaders are actively involved in plotting the route to both the long-term and short-term futures, it is important that debate is much wider than this. As part of FutureLab’s response to Beyond Current Horizons it has established the Million Futures website, which invites comments from teachers, children and others about how they want planning for the future in education to develop. There are also a range of tools on FutureLab’s website that assist users to envision the future, including discussion papers on how new technologies can help educational development. FutureLab is currently developing an online planning toolkit that will further assist schools.


The ‘Horizon Scanning Centre’ on the Foresight website – developed and funded by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – contains a toolkit to also help with developing a clearer concept of what the future looks like. A European Union Foresight website provides assistance with future visioning, including an example of the planning of Manchester as a knowledge city.


L.P. Hartley famously observed that the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. If the future is to be made less foreign as well as less frightening then we need the tools to visualise what it looks like. Happily, many of those tools exist.


Uniformity was important under the factory model. Now there is no job for the uniform person.” Professor Stephen Heppell


Transformation has to be the key concept.” Barry Sheerman MP, Chairman, House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee


Its about people and relationships if you want to change those very difficult schools.” Lord Mawson






Further reading:

‘Future Issues in Socio-Technical Change for UK Education’ by Dave Cliff, Claire O’Malley and Josie Taylor is available at

The Foresight website, which includes the ‘Horizon Scanning Centre’ is at

The ‘Million Futures’ website is at

A Foresight exercise in planning for Manchester as a knowledge city can be studied at

Stephen Heppell’s blog and information on his consultancy work on schools is published at and

‘Future schooling in Knowsley’ is accessed at



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