Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

2020 vision


Robert Hill explains why ASCL is embarking on a p project to plot the trends and developments expected to impact on leaders of schools and colleges in 2020.

It takes a brave person to have claimed to have foreseen the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the bank crash of September 2008. The first two came out of the blue - both literally and metaphorically - while few predicted the scale and extent of the financial turmoil.

Even trends and large-scale developments in society are often hard to chart and predict. The advent of mad cow disease caught the scientific community off-guard. The explosion in computing power and the creation and the pervasiveness of the internet happened, relatively speaking, overnight.

As we struggled to master Sinclairs and Amstrads in the early 1980s, or our first Windows or Apple systems a few years later, hardly any of the experts envisaged the extent to which the convergence of computing and communications would change our lives. Not only does it provide the sort of real-time services we now take for granted through an iPhone but has - and is continuing to have - a profound impact on every dimension of the economy and public service.

Similarly, speculation in the mid-1980s about the benefits of gene therapy would have been more likely to have been found in a science fiction novel as a medical text book. It was the mapping of the human genome that exponentially opened up this new world of medicine at a rate that has surprised even those who commissioned the project.

Even more recently the government was completely caught out by the number of migrants coming from Eastern Europe after countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia joined the European Union. A study commissioned by the Home Office originally estimated that between 5,000 and 13,000 workers per year would come to the UK from the states that had recently acceded to the EU1. In fact between 2004 and 2007 it is estimated that around one million East European migrants came to the UK - though many have since returned home2.

In the light of all this it may seem odd that ASCL has commissioned work to think about how future demographic, environmental, scientific, technological, medical and social developments could affect education, schools and colleges in 2020.

But the fact that that we cannot foresee everything does not mean that we are unable to predict anything. A lack of omniscience about the future does not absolve policy makers from the responsibility of planning for and thinking about those things that can reasonably be foreseen.

There may, to use Donald Rumsfeld's famous phrase, be 'unknown unknowns' - things which are so off our radar that we do not know that we do not know them! But there are also 'known unknowns' - things that we may not know but which, by collating and analysing available data and trends, we can reasonably well predict or at least identify a number of different possible scenarios. So we should address the latter (the known unknowns) but not be surprised when the former (unknown unknowns) happen.

Implications for leaders

I have long thought that part of being a leader is understanding the world around you so that you can make sense of it to the people with whom you work and give direction, as well as to those for whom you have responsibility.

You may disagree with how society is developing, be concerned about the implications of an innovation or oppose a policy decision.

But as a leader you need to be familiar with the forces that are shaping the world around you and with the challenges that lie ahead.

How else can you position your organisation to be fit and ready for current circumstances or future developments? You will be a better leader on a day-to-day basis if you have a strategic understanding of what is happening in society.

This applies to all leaders in all walks of life but particularly to those who are responsible for nurturing and leading young people. It is the next generation who will be most affected by what is coming down the road. They are often more open to and even leading change, but at the same time they have many questions and even fears about the future.

Leading young people is about preparing them for the future so that they are equipped as citizens, employees and as human beings for the world as it is going to be. So if you do not understand the future how can you properly and fully discharge your responsibilities to the young people in your charge?

If this does not convince you of the need to think about the future, consider the issue from a narrower educational perspective. Gather together a group of students or staff and watch one of the short YouTube Did you know - shift happens videos created by a school and its staff in the United States3. Their fascinating analysis of the rapid changes in society and technology concludes that schools and colleges are at risk of:

"Preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist... using technologies that haven't yet been invented... in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

Aims of the project

Against this background the ASCL project, which is being supported by Becta, is aiming to stimulate a debate for school and college leaders about developments in wider society that are likely to affect what it means to be an education leader in 2020.

A good many ASCL members might argue, "Phew, that lets me off the hook - I'll be retired by then." But even to those who see the sunny uplands of pensioner status beckoning I would say that you too have a responsibility to prepare your successors and to leave your organisation looking forward rather than slipping back.

The project is going to produce a series of briefings over the next year on a number of topics (see the table overleaf). For each issue a paper will take stock of the current state of affairs, summarise future trends and some of the less predictable factors that could affect them, analyse the implications for public policy and examine what they could mean for school and college leaders.

In addition there will be opportunities for ASCL members to engage in debate and discussion on the issues raised by the papers. The project provides a unique opportunity for ASCL members to engage in debate about the key issues that are going to shape our world - I hope that many of you will join in.

Robert Hill is a former government education policy adviser. Now an independent consultant on public policy issues, he has worked on several projects with ASCL.

2020 Dimension Issues to be considered
  • Population trends including birth rate, migration, ageing, and ethnicity

  • Projection of student numbers

  • Future profile and skill set of the school and college workforce

  • The shape of the global economy

  • The UK labour market

  • Projection of skills required

  • Access to housing

  • Developments in post-school learning

Health and wellbeing
  • Trends on life expectancy

  • Trends in major conditions (including mental health) and causes of premature death

  • Developments in new treatments and drugs

  • Preventive health interventions

  • Developments in neuroscience and their impact on learning

Technology and the media
  • Developments in wi-fi, capacity of computers and super computers and other chip-enabled technology

  • Use of technology in the home and video games

  • The future of radio, TV and newspapers

  • Developments in learning technologies

  • Methods of communication

Environment and climate change
  • Trends in energy and water supply

  • Developments in transport

  • Reductions in carbon emissions

Public services
  • Organisation of public services

  • Extent of consumer empowerment

  • Sustainability of public funding and co-payment

Development of society
  • Social cohesion and income and wealth distribution

  • Family life

  • Aspirations and lifestyle of young people

  • Working and leisure patterns

  • Religious practice

  • Voluntary activity


1 The impact of EU enlargement on migration flows, Dustmann et al, Home Office Online Report 25/03.
2 Roland Rudd (Business for New Europe) and Danny Sriskandarajah (ippr), Wall Street Journal - 03 June 2008.
3 http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=pMcfrLYDm2U

ASCL Annual Conference

Annual conference delegates are invited to attend a seminar with Robert Hill titled 'Making sense of the future' on the Friday afternoon. Robert will give an overview of the challenges of the next decade and what they mean for teaching and learning. This year's annual conference is 13-15 March in Birmingham. See www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference for details.

© 2022 Association of School and College Leaders | Designed with IMPACT