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On Purpose: Redefining Success for the 21st Century

18 July 2016: posted by BigChange

We all know that the ability to succeed in life comes down to a lot more than just intelligence. As Martin Luther King Junior once said, ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.’

Today, there is a predominant focus on the intelligence aspect of that equation, but relatively little by way of character. While it is important to teach young people traditional academic skills, are we leaving out a number other characteristics and attributes that are critical to success in the 21st century?

These are the questions we will be asking  in our research with Demos this year. In June, we took this discussion to a public forum for the first time at Wellington Education Festival. This blog written by Ralph Scott touches on the highlights of the panel and introduces our new project with Demos, which seeks to redefine what it means to be a successful young person in the 21st century.


What is the purpose of education?

Over the past few years, we at Demos have been doing a great deal of work on what the Department for Education calls ‘character’ – the traits, skills, habits of thought, mindset, attitudes and capabilities that matter for a happy and successful life, not captured through existing measures of cognitive ability – and thinking about how it relates to the education system. Our most recent research with Big Change, for instance, delved into how mindset impacts the development of young people in various areas, from their academic attainment to their wellbeing.

Through this work we’ve reached out to a number of teachers and senior leaders to garner their thoughts, and a point that they kept coming back to was, first, that since the introduction of the National Curriculum there had been no explicit discussion of the purpose of education.

And second, that developments since then – the introduction of performance tables, and Ofsted – had made it increasingly clear what the implicit purpose of the system was: continuous improvement in various measures of educational attainment.

This runs counter to how schools and teachers often see their role – broader than securing improved attainment, including things like socialisation and other development – as well as what parents consider to be the role of schools.

This was the inspiration for our session at Wellington, where we were joined by Tom Sherrington, Head of Highbury Grove school, and Anna Smee, Chief Executive of UK Youth.


Education in and outside of the classroom

The discussion was more practical than philosophical, and focused on what purpose means in the practice of education.

Tom struck a balance by claiming that the main job of education and therefore teachers is clearly to develop knowledge and encourage learning, while recognising that factors outside the classroom often have an impact on learning that teachers have to respond to, which necessarily involves social and personal development.

Too often schools might lack the time to give space to discuss bigger issues or the things that young people might need to know in their lives.

This point around recognising the importance of social and emotional development to wider outcomes was reiterated by Anna Smee in her contribution, where she described the social development journey model that guides the work of UK Youth, starting with engagement, through learning, then social action and finally leadership.

Students taking part in a coaching session at School 21.
Teachers at School 21, one of Big Change’s project partners, work closely with students to develop communication skills and foster wellbeing.

Finding space in the school day to support this wider development, when the accountability regime is as it is, is not easy. Tom seeks to address these challenges through his work on the National Baccalaureate, and suggested that too often schools might lack the time to give space to discuss bigger issues or the things that young people might need to know in their lives.

One step forward would be good quality data on the extent of enrichment provision in schools and in the wider community. Anna suggested that schools, youth clubs and other extra-curricular providers should be encouraged to use similar data platforms and to share data, thereby removing barriers to partnership and enabling both sides to better understand a young person’s experience either side of the school gate. 

The challenge of measurement

A crucial barrier identified by the panel and audience members was impact measurement – how do we encourage people to value those things which are currently hard to measure?

So having developed relatively valid and reliable measures of academic performance, education policy makers ended up using them to define success, thinking they were the only thing that mattered. One audience member suggested there should be real-world behavioural measures of wider success that it is possible for 100% of young people to achieve – like high-school graduation in the US – and asked if we could find concrete examples in this country.

However, this question of how we begin to value those things in education that matter for success will take longer than 50 minutes to resolve.

Generation Change 1
Big Change’s partners at Generation Change are doing a great deal of work in this area, and are currently developing, testing, and promoting a quality mark for the youth social action sector.


Demos + Big Change Research 2016

For this reason, Demos and Big Change will be working together over 2016 to draw together a more holistic understanding of developmental success. 

The aim of the project is to develop an evidence-based framework and provide a more current idea of what the UK wants it’s young people to look like on leaving full-time education in terms of knowledge, skills, capabilities and mindset. 

The project will draw on the latest evidence and consult with researchers, teachers, employers, parents and young people to find out what attributes and capabilities we want and need our young people to have in the 21st century. We will also look at how these are developed, and what changes need to be made at various levels to ensure that all young people leave education prepared for success in later life. 

By the end, we hope to provide an alternative vision of developmental success and a clear idea of how it might be implemented. To find out more about the project and get involved, get in touch with

Stay tuned for more details on our research with Demos.

Read our previous research report, Mind Over Matter.