John Brett, Head of the Abbey and Queens House, talks about the children of the future

It’s December 1998 and NASA is sending a spaceship to Mars. The world’s finest rocket scientists have been toiling for years on the design of their Mars Climate Orbiter. Now, after a textbook launch, it’s farewell Earth. The journey to Mars takes nine months, but then something extraordinary happens. Instead of slowing down, the spacecraft hurtles around the planet and vanishes. Why? Well, the engineers navigating the spaceship had been using imperial measures; mission control had thought they were using metric. One group thought they were talking about miles, the other group thought they were talking about kilometres. Sadly, that meant $125M worth of spaceship disappeared.

It’s a useful parable for us today: incredibly talented people, fantastically well educated who make a series of errors that seem to defy explanation. And yet the reason for the error was as simple as a lack of effective communication or perhaps an absence of intellectual curiosity, common sense even.

Today’s children will emerge into this complex world of work in a few short years’ time and still our goal as educators keeps moving. The world of work continues to evolve and shift, showing us time and again that things are changing faster than at any time in our history, more than ever now requiring transferable skills, creative thinking and problem solving; courage and innovation; presentation and debating skills. It follows that in education, it is no longer appropriate or acceptable to pigeonhole children as being arty or sporty or geeky. They need to be polymaths: rounded, lateral thinkers, good at arts and sciences, developing the whole of their intellectual and creative capacities – not just some of their academic ones.

I remember having to go through my school reports with my parents after the end of each term, which came in a sort of booklet with individual sheets of A5 paper stapled together, and the reports were always in the same order: English, maths, science, languages, humanities, followed by the arts and sport at the back. I grew up believing that, despite evidence all around me to the contrary, there must be some special reason why maths and languages were more important than music and sports. It turns out, there wasn’t and they’re not. So the first thing I did when I was able to have any influence over such matters in a school, was to produce pupils’ reports in subject alphabetical order, which had the happy consequence of putting art first, followed
by drama!