Upgrading Education for the 21st Century to Create a Sustainable World

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Education ideologies have a long and varied history in the UK and more generally. The prevailing ideology during any given time frame informs national education policy decisions which, of course, sets the sails for the whole education system and wider society. It is very important that we consider education ideologies in order to understand the current thinking which informs the way our education system works, and this means considering the wider context through social, political and economic factors.

"What future do we want for our children and our society? Whatever the answer, education is the key to successfully meeting the challenges of the 21st Century in a world with increasing uncertainty and globalization."

The goal is to develop a strong vision and consensus on the future of education designed to prepare children for the 21st Century. Children today face a very different world to the one their parents and grandparents inherited. As a society, we must adjust the sails of our education system from time to time to successfully prepare the next generation for the future that awaits them. Reflecting on educational ideologies is a healthy exercise, and it also informs the role and objectives of wider learning beyond the classroom too.

Welfare State Education

Following World War II, 1946 saw the growth of state intervention after the poverty of the 1930s. This was driven by the belief that state (government) has an important role to play in the wellbeing of society. By providing welfare support for those disadvantaged by social circumstances (in the UK this meant a free National Health Service, free education for all, a state pension and equality of opportunity etc.), the accepted belief was the state has the responsibility to remove or reduce disadvantage.

Initially, this meant selective education (Grammar, Secondary Modern or Technical) until being replaced by non-selective Comprehensive schools in the 1960s-1970s. The ideology of Welfare State Education was to create equal opportunities for all children in education so that they can go on to play a useful role in society as suited to their interests and abilities.

Neoliberal Education

Over time, the prevailing education ideology moved away from Welfare State Education and towards what is known as Neoliberal Education. The societal view guiding neoliberalism is that human nature is essentially competitive and this is how the world works. The rationale behind this ideology is each person maximizes their own personal benefits and that economic rationality (i.e. competition) will bring appropriate benefits for all in society. The role of the state should be minimal and not interfere in the free market process. By definition what is 'private' is seen as good and what is 'public' is bad.

From the perspective of education, this requires preparing students to fit into the existing neoliberal view of society and provide an internationally competitive workforce. It legitimizes this dominant view of society and its structures by reinforcing that the role of the state should be minimal. In neoliberal thinking, education is performance driven and demonstrates its effectiveness by results. There is a focus on 'surface' learning (i.e. being good at passing exams) with stress on competition by results (e.g. SATS and league tables) based on a mechanistic or behaviouristic view of learning based on transmission. The teacher is largely an instructor and transmitter of knowledge with a focus on hierarchical and directive modes of working.

Many of the educational aspects of neoliberalism can be observed in UK and other countries today. Schools that reflect this worldview tend to be formal and standardized with adherence to a formal curriculum. While some features of Neoliberal Education are very explicit, others are more implicit and hidden within schools and education institutions. The marked shift away from state intervention towards neoliberalism can be seen in almost every aspect of our society and its structures today in the UK and much of the Western world.