Virgin Disruptors: The Future of Education


When do you ever get Sir Richard Branson, Brian Cox and Jonathan Rochelle - inventor of Google Docs - in the same room?

Well I went to Virgin Disruptors, the Future of Education, last week and there they all were (along with many other people passionate about disrupting education!). It was a packed agenda with some impressive people coming down to contribute to the debate on the future of education and discuss whether the current education system makes the grade.

The day kicked off with two year nine students, Zaid and Romina, from School21 (  interviewing Sir Richard Branson, and his son, Sam Branson. It was amazing to see two young people have the confidence to sit on stage in front of a big audience interviewing one of the most famous entrepreneurs around, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was 13! This is testament to their school and its alternative approach to learning, where they place oration at the heart of everything they do. We also heard from Ed Fidoe, one of the founders of the school (and also one of the Directors at Edspace) later on in the day about the approach the school is taking to educate its students.

Sir Richard left school aged 15 and he believes that education in schools hasn’t changed much at all in the last 50 years since he left. Children are kept in school for too long when they should be going out into the real world to learn from actual experiences. He thinks that education needs rethinking and that schools should be more relevant to what’s going on in the real world. That’s all well and good but how do we actually achieve that? Well there was some pretty impressive edtech and innovative thinking showcased throughout the day hoping to do just that. There are also schools like School21 and Floreat that are challenging the status quo and pioneering this new way of teaching, through focusing on project based learning, allowing students to learn through carrying out real life activities.

 Moving away from pedagogy, the event turned toward new technologies which will revolutionise the classroom in the near future. The one which stood out the most to me were the NAO Robots, created by Alderbaran ( They are  humanoid robots which can be programmed to understand and respond to you. We had demos from two of them on stage and they were chatting away to their owners - one of them even did a pretty accurate impersonation of Usain Bolt from the Virgin advert! Whilst they may just look like a cool toy, they are actually already being used really effectively in schools. They help pupils learn to programme, they can act as a teacher e.g. to teach languages, and they’re being used as avatars for students when they can’t be present in the classroom. Children of course think this is a really cool and exciting new way to learn so they’re great at getting children actively engaged and motivated.

Another highlight for me was the Galactic Unite Panel ( Galactic Unite are a part of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Unite and they’re doing some impressive work around getting more children into STEM subjects through the medium of the emerging space industry. They have 70 scholarships available where they assign students a mentor - either an engineer or an astronaut -  provide them with internships and financial assistance. By the end of their discussion  I was almost convinced that I should retrain as an engineer and I could join Virgin Galactic too! Truthfully though it did get me questioning some of the choices I made at school about which subjects to take and this is a really interesting way to spark young people’s interest in subjects that they traditionally may have shied away from.

We then heard from a number of different inspiring people about the work they’ve done to change the future of education. One of the most powerful stories of the day came from our host Karl Lokko. An articulate and funny guy, we found out that he spent 8 years of his life leading one of the most notorious gangs in South London and how he had managed to turn his life around. We heard from the Big Change panel, and the woman that had single handedly helped Karl to turn his life around. She had since gone on to set up the first gang rehabilitation centre and has helped numerous other ex-gang members turn their lives around too. Some examples of things they have done is set up sports teams and arts projects to provide people with an alternative vocation and new skills.

The day concluded with  a debate on ‘the Future of Education: does the current model make the grade?’. The panel was made up of Professor Brian Cox, Toby Young, Rob Bristow, Shantanu Sinha and Wendy Kopp, with Clemency Burton Hill as moderator. It was a really interesting debate with lots of different ideas floating around, with disagreements on the value of technology in education, what the curriculum should look like, and the benefits online learning vs face to face contact. The only consensus though, was that change was definitely needed!

You can also watch the highlights from the day here:






Laura BillingsComment