Opening minds

The most important future skill

Two keynotes. Two stories. One message about the future, and it might not be what you were expecting. Reflections on the COBIS 2021 conference from Andy Homden.


On the face of it you couldn’t find two more different speakers than Dr. Andreas Schleicher and Baroness Floella Benjamin of Beckenham. He the measured scientist and mathematical Director of Education and Skills at the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), home of PISA – the Programme of International Student Assessment.  She the exuberant broadcaster, actor-singer and dancer, loved and remembered by a certain generation of teachers as the host of the 1970s and 80s children’s TV programme Play School.

So, what were these two Keynotes talking about at the Council of British International Schools 2021 conference and what, if anything, did they have in common?

Andreas Schleicher and Global Competence

Andreas Schleicher’s subject was the 2018 PISA assessments – but his concern was not to analyse the latest international league tables of academic skills. He was talking about the assessment of what he referred to as ‘Global Competence’ and the empathetic ability of students to engage with the world and all its uncertainty.

Listening to him, you felt there was a profound and important truth to understand.


Developing a compass

Now more than ever, he argued, young people need a ‘reliable compass’ and the ‘tools to navigate with confidence through an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world’.

Young people are constantly bombarded with ill-founded ideas masquerading online as facts. These must be handled sceptically and evaluated. For Schleicher, developing the literacy skills to get that all-important compass in place is an essential task for us all. A greater knowledge of the world, and a willingness to engage with it then helps young people use the compass. Not surprisingly the results of PISA 2018 suggest that if schools encourage thinking and discussion about global issues such as poverty, immigration, technology and climate change, students are more likely to become ‘globally competent’.

It will be the societies that value bridging social capital and pluralism most that can draw in the best talent from anywhere and nurture creativity and innovation.

The role of schools

What Schleicher urged was for schools to build the capacity of young people to ‘live in an interconnected world’. Schools also had a responsibility to develop the kind of ‘bridging social capital’ which would benefit not only individuals, but also society:

‘It will be the societies that value bridging social capital and pluralism most that can draw in the best talent from anywhere and nurture creativity and innovation’.


The epitome of Global Competence?

Then there was Baroness Floella. As she warmed to her theme that Childhood lasts a lifetime, I felt that I was on the carpet in front of the whiteboard with all the other virtual delegates – principals, teachers, consultants and committee members alike – as she told the story of her life, singing and intoning, her words dancing from Trinidad to Hammersmith, Beckenham, Exeter University and the House of Lords.

She was an inspired choice as the final Keynote, not only because of what she has achieved, but also because she oozes the ‘bridging social capital’ that Schleicher regards as so important. And she built it against all the odds after coming to England as an 11-year-old from Trinidad in 1960 to join her family who had emigrated a few years earlier.

Her idealised view of England built up in the Caribbean was soon called into question by the strange ‘looks’ she got at Waterloo station the day she landed at Southampton, the bullying and the name-calling at school and the silent sneering in the local shops where she had to wait patiently to be served after being deliberately ignored.

Historian David Olusoga reads Coming to England, the true story of Baroness Floella Benjamin’s journey from Trinidad to London in 1960.

Home environment

My father showed us a world out there to capture, while my mother showed me how to capture it.

In learning how to cope, she demonstrated another of Schleicher’s points – that the home environment is also a critical determinant of ‘global competence’. As she talked, you understood the signs of an outward urge in her father, who wanted to experience the world on the other side of the ocean when he responded to the call of the UK as one of the Windrush Generation. His was the curiosity and optimism that ultimately brought the family to England. It was her mother, however, who enabled the family to overcome the closed minds and hostility that they met in 1960s London. Floella quietly and fondly expressed her massive debt to them both: her father ‘showed us a world out there to capture’ while her mother ‘showed me how to capture it’.


It was the love in the household that undoubtedly got them through the worst of times. The teenage Floella under the guidance of both her mother and her redoubtable English teacher, Mrs. Thomas, subtly transformed her instinct to hit back into a determination to succeed. She decided to ‘fight with her brain’ and education became her passport to a fulfilling and rich career. Her passion for education led to an Honorary DLitt from Exeter University, where she also became Chancellor. She became a Life Peer in 2010.

As we listened to her story, something Schleicher had said the day before resonated:

“Success in education today is about building curiosity – opening minds, it is about compassion – opening hearts, and it is about courage, mobilising our cognitive, social and emotional resources to take action. And those are also our best weapon against the biggest threats of our times – ignorance – the closed mind, hate – the closed heart, and fear – the enemy of agency”.

The influence of teachers

I wondered if they had met. They would have a lot to talk about. Who would be the teacher? I suspect they would take turns over an excellent cup of coffee, and they would agree that encouraging children to open their minds, to think for themselves and to engage with the world should be at the top of every school’s agenda. Childhood does indeed last a lifetime, and as Mitch Albom remarks in Tuesdays with Morrie:

‘you never know where a teacher’s influence will end’.

Andy Homden is a former international school headteacher, and a specialist in the opening of new schools. He is the CEO of Consilium Education, which provides a range of consulting services for school start-ups and project planning.

He is also the Editor of International Teacher Magazine.

Andy can be contacted at


To find out more about future COBIS events see:

FEATURE IMAGE: by PDPics from Pixabay


You may also like