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Jan Ptacin

Are We Educating Our Children Wrong?

This article summarises the recent episode with Sir Anthony Seldon, an educator and present Headmaster of Epsom College, contemporary historian as well as a renowned author. The article includes parts on the present state of education in the UK, how education should be, the different types of educations as well as how AI will change education. The article further encompasses parts on how the independent sector of education has changed, a part on UK universities as well as a part on British Prime Ministers.

Sir Anthony Seldon studied PPE at Oxford University, holds a PhD degree in Economics from the LSE and an MBA from the University of Westminster. He was previously the Headmaster of Wellington College as well as Brighton College and was also the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. He is the author of many notable political biographies of British Prime Ministers and altogether has authored more than 40 books.

On the UK’s Education System

Sir Seldon begins by saying that ‘it is fundamentally a 19th century model’. This is, according to Sir Seldon, as the education system puts emphasis on passive learning and the regurgitation of the material in exams. 

“Indeed, some students taking exams in exactly the same subjects, answering exactly the same questions, having been taught in exactly the same ways, and sitting the exams in exactly the same halls. So the world has moved on.”

Sir Seldon states that he thinks that the UK’s education system, partly as a result of this, is falling behind other educational systems when looking at things from a global perspective. Sir Seldon stresses that this is since both the school and university level focus on exam passes rather than looking at the way society and the economy are changing and in fact preparing the students for the world of work. 

Sir Seldon explains that the UK educational system measures academic achievement primarily by GCSEs, A-levels and the class classification at university. He, moreover, explains that ‘we look at university they went to and if it's Oxford and Cambridge or Imperial and a few others, that's great. And if they don't get into those places, it's not.’. Sir Seldon emphasises that ‘this is all wrong’ and maintains that how education is assessed is very different from how it should be assessed. 

“We are all born with a set of potentialities that we then nurture and develop in our life. We all have many different intelligences, the great Harvard educationalist said: Don't ask a student how intelligent they are, ask rather, how are they intelligent? And we're all intelligent in so many different ways in the world.”

How Education Should Be 

Sir Seldon then puts across the point that the world of work is fundamentally different in terms of the skillsets required than the skillset required to achieve a triple A star at A-level. In Sir Seldon’s words ‘there are so many more ways to look at what it means to be an educated and contented person beyond the acquisition of exam success.’ Sir Seldon stresses that while success in examinations may correlate with these things ‘it often doesn’t’. He explains that it’s not enough to be spectacularly successful academically but that a person needs to develop whole set of intelligences other than their intellectual intelligence. 

Sir Seldon highlights that much more than just exam success can be achieved through education. In Sir Seldon’s words ‘we reduce education to what can be measurable, but education is about much more clearly than that’. 

“The word educate, which of course you all know what it means, don't you? By the way, I've never met an education secretary anywhere in the world that knows what the word means seriously. But it means drawing out. It means leading out what's inside. So if you don't lead out what's inside, those things will remain dormant.”

Different Types of Educations

‘We have eight different intelligences, I think, which we could talk about, which only 1 or 2 are measured by exams’, Sir Seldon emphasises. Sir Seldon explains that education should mean ‘recognising what’s inside people and leading it out as it says in the word education’. 

Sir Seldon states that on a fundamental level there is logical and linguistic intelligence representing the divide between STEM subjects and the arts and humanities. Sir Seldon further mentions that there is also personal intelligence ‘the intelligence to know how to live a meaningful, productive, happy life’. Sir Seldon gives the example of not exercising well as not being intelligent since it will shorten one’s life and diminish its quality. Sir Seldon then mentions social intelligence ‘the ability to be able to relate to people and understand people to be empathetic’ as well as creativity which includes musical, dance, acting, writing and visual art. Lastly, he mentions physical intelligence arguing that sport is going to become more important throughout the 21st century. ‘It's one of the great joys of life going all the way back to ancient Greece and for millennia before’, he states. The remaining two according to Seldon are moral intelligence and spiritual intelligence. 

“If one doesn't recognize that the spiritual is what makes life worthwhile for any professed atheist to understand the sense of awe and wonder, seeing a sunset, seeing an extraordinary seascape, being in love, the love of one's children, the love of one's partner. We cannot define life in purely rational, logical ways, in sequential ways.”

On Effecting Chane 

“This is a point about all leadership that the successful prime ministers, like the successful CEOs or heads of divisions in big corporations, have to realise what is possible and most prime ministers achieve little. And most are disappointing because they don't have a realistic understanding of what they can achieve. So the situational point is there and the great prime ministers, like the great presidents of the United States, for example, are there at moments of great change.”

Sir Seldon explains that effecting change comes down to leadership as well as that one often in a leadership position just needs to know ‘what is there, what the potential is and make the most of the situation’. Sir Seldon reflects that at both Wellington and Brighton the institutions were ready for significant change but that, on the other hand, when he went and ran a university it did not necessarily have the resources to make the change. Thus, he explains that ‘making transformational change there was harder.’ Thus, overall, Sir Seldon states that being a transformational leader has a lot to do with external events as well as resources available at the time of one’s leadership role. 

How will AI Change Education? 

Sir Seldon begins by highlighting that ‘AI is the biggest thing to hit education since the printing press.’ He also states that while we are still educating people for a pre-AI world, we also do not yet know fully how AI will change the world of work. 

“We are teaching people for the very skills logical, intense intellectual activity that the AI, the algorithms will always be able to outperform the human being on.” 

So Sir Seldon argues that fundamentally in the present state our education is unfit for the changes which will result from the rise of AI when many of the logical jobs will simply be the domain of AI machines. Sir Seldon offers the view that arguably we still have ‘an industrial revolution style of education’. Sir Seldon then puts across the point that AI will fundamentally transform every aspect of a teacher’s job as it will be able to personalise teaching in a way which was previously unimaginable. 

“It will free up the heavy lifting of teaching, the preparation, the administration of teaching and the marking for teachers to be far more able to develop the human skills in young people.”

Sir Seldon states that students already can get better lessons on physics or history through AI and if not now then certainly in 10 years’ time. He also states as a result of AI physical classrooms will disappear. Lastly, Sir Seldon emphasises that ‘we need to be doing more to prepare ourselves by young people for that world’. 

How the Independent Education Sector Has Changed

Sir Seldon firstly explains that sometimes it is the case that better schools in a country will be state funded schools rather than private schools. He also stresses the point that private school fess have gone up significantly over the last 50 years while parents’ ability to pay has not necessarily increased as much. 

Sir Seldon then offers his thoughts on London. He states that it ‘suffers from the fact that you can't get premises that would in any way compete with the big existing independent schools.’ Thus, he explains that as elsewhere in London new competition to established independent schools ‘hasn’t really come into the sector. 

On UK Universities

“There is pressure also, as you say, on quite rightly so, on universities to admit young people who come from less advantaged backgrounds and to give them preferential grade offers to compensate with the fact they have come from a disadvantaged background. And that is absolutely right that that happens because universities should be assessing potential, not ability on entry.”

Despite of this trend, Sir Seldon, argues that ‘the great majority of young people from middle class backgrounds have managed to get university offers at universities they want.’ He, however, notes that often parents might be surprised by the ‘comparatively Spartan existence of life at university’ since in simple terms ‘there is simply much less money’ in the university sector than in the independent school sector. This is especially the case with the better resourced British independent schools ‘unless you are lucky enough to go to Oxford and Cambridge, where the numbers, as everyone knows, an independent school, young people going has declined rapidly and will probably continue to decline.’

On British Prime Ministers

While Sir Seldon acknowledges that some of the success of Prime Ministers is situational, for instance, whether the PM has a big majority or whether you come in with a lot of money. He further argues that those who have succeeded have clear agendas ‘And it's remarkable that many prime ministers haven't. We do not know what the agenda was of many prime ministers.’  Sir Seldon further argues that the ability to win elections and the ability to be great in governing are fundamentally two different things. 

“So there's a strike rate of about 1 in 8 who really have made the weather, made a difference, made history, left the office, the country different in a better way after them.”


This article summarised the episode with Sir Anthony Seldon and included parts on the present state of education in the UK, how education should be, the different types of educations as well as how AI will change education. The article further encompassed parts on how the independent sector of education has changed, a part on UK universities as well as a part on British Prime Ministers. 

By Jan Ptacin. Jan is currently a third-year student at Durham University studying PPE. Outside of his degree Jan is interested in investing, having been a team leader of a team which reached a global final of an investment competition organised by KWHS in high school. He also enjoys art, hiking and fine wine as hobbies. 

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September 15, 2023
September 15, 2023