4. The OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling

In 2001, the OECD published What Schools for the Future? (OECD, 2001[1]), a set of scenarios on the future of schooling and education. The report remains a thought-provoking contribution to future thinking in education and indeed, almost twenty years later, many of the key issues are still debated today.

However, much has also changed in our world since the turn of the 21st century, both within education and in the wider world. This chapter presents an updated set of scenarios, drawing on the original thinking as well as over a decade of CERI work on Trends Shaping Education.

Although tempting to imagine scenarios as possible recipes for the future from which we can choose a preferred option, it is important to recognise that scenarios are not predictions. As highlighted earlier in this volume, much of our thinking of the future is linear, and based on extending currently existing trends. But trends slow, accelerate, bend and break. Unforeseen events can disrupt even long-standing trends.

Scenarios are designed to foster reflection on the possible ways in which the future may differ from our current expectations. These reflections can then be used to gauge our preparedness for the different possible futures, if they were to happen. Imagining multiple scenarios for the future thus recognises that there is not only one pathway into the future, but many (OECD, 2001[1]).

The original 2001 OECD scenarios presented six possible futures framed and structured along a set of themes: attitudes, expectations, and political support; goals and functions; organisation and structures; the geo-political dimension, and; the teacher force. These were in turn clustered around three axes:

  • The status quo extrapolated

    • Scenario 1: Robust bureaucratic systems

    • Scenario 2: Extending the market model

  • Re-schooling

    • Scenario 3: Schools as core social centres

    • Scenario 4: Schools as learning organisations

  • De-schooling

    • Scenario 5: Learner networks and the network society

    • Scenario 6: Teacher exodus – the meltdown scenario

This update presents four scenarios. They build on and reframe the ideas of re-schooling and de-schooling present in the original set – the expansion of learning markets, the growing investment and role of digital technologies in connecting people as well as its impact on the personalisation of learning.

The scenarios also connect to the ongoing discussion of how to better leverage individual motivation for learning, and recognise and take advantage of its informal and non-formal sources. Technological advances have been interwoven throughout, as have the major changes and trends in education itself (see Chapter 3).

The four OECD Scenarios for the Future of Schooling are presented in Figure 4.1. They have been constructed in a time frame of approximately 20 years, to 2040. This timeframe is chosen as it is long enough for significant change to occur beyond immediate political cycles, but not so far off as to be too remote for anyone except futurists and visionaries.

Since scenarios are “just stories”, they can be entertained and discussed more openly than actual policy choices. Working with scenarios is useful for reflecting on the scenarios themselves as well as in the intervening processes of change, both in terms of broader social developments and potential reactions to them from the education sector.

As a tool to navigate plausible futures, scenarios can be used to:

  • Observe how our education systems are evolving.

  • Assess potential drivers behind these developments and explore signals in the present that could make these patterns continue as they are, speed up or change course entirely.

  • Situate ourselves in these futures and assess how well prepared we are for (whether for expected futures or unexpected changes shock the system – see Box 4.1).

The rest of this chapter sets out the four scenarios in detail. Some of the questions to be considered when working with scenarios include (see Chapter 2 for more, including links to additional resources):

  • What new changes or signs of change do we need to watch out for?

  • What is our strategic inventory (funding something, banning something, promoting a new practice, forming a partnership, etc.)?

  • How do existing practices perform in each scenario?

  • What new options are there to combine existing strengths with new opportunities, or to avoid existing weaknesses combining with new threats?

  • What new options for action make sense today in light of the discussion?

In this chapter, each scenario is additionally accompanied by a set of potential drivers and signals from the present, as well as more concrete questions for discussion. The questions are designed to inspire, challenge, and invite further reflection and discussion by the user.

Participation in formal education continues to expand. International collaboration and technological advances support more individualised learning, yet the structures and processes of schooling remain.   

In this scenario, participation in formal education during the early years of life continues to expand for most individuals. There is widespread recognition of education as a foundation of economic competitiveness and most countries have intensified efforts to universalise access to formal learning from the first years of life and through past tertiary education. Formal certificates continue to be the main passports to economic and social success. At the same time, they are also increasingly insufficient and individuals accumulate alternative credentials and a broad range of volunteering and non-formal work experience – aided by public and private sponsoring in some jurisdictions – to become more attractive for the labour market.

The bureaucratic character of school systems continues. Much attention focuses on the curriculum, with many countries operating a common curriculum and assessment tools. Pressure towards uniformity and enforcing standards remains, although greater choice is granted to students in choosing the content of their learning as long as defined core competencies are achieved. With a strong focus on knowledge and skills, values and attitudes are more prominent (e.g. co-operation, entrepreneurship).

Strong international public-private collaboration powers digital learning systems, which are fed with learning resources and data mutualised across countries. Governmental education authorities remain the main locus of decision-making, but their influence has diminished as international providers gain in power. Innovations perceived as successful from the private sector percolate quickly into national systems.

In schools, the organisation of instruction and student-teacher relations remains generally impervious to change, although there is room for innovation. Schools continue to operate under a classroom/individual adult model but schedules are more flexible with the adoption of blended instructional methods and rigid boundaries between traditional academic subjects have softened. Continuous analysis of instructional dynamics and evaluating student effort and discipline are possible with learning analytics and facial recognition technology. Feedback to students, teachers and parents is instantaneous, reporting student progress and warnings of misbehaviour. It is no longer necessary to stop-and-test; rather, assessment and instruction take place simultaneously.

Schools and their networks can use economies of scale to more effectively plan and deploy resources by leveraging digitalisation and data information systems. More marked division of tasks and greater diversification of professional profiles in schools has emerged. A reduced but distinct, well-trained teaching corps remains in charge of designing learning content and activities, which may be then implemented and monitored by educational robots along with other staff employed under diverse working arrangements (voluntary/paid, part-time/full-time, face-to-face or online), or directly by educational software. New roles, such as learning data analysts, grow strongly, employed in school networks or “learning industries” elsewhere.

As digitalisation allows students to work more autonomously, school staff can focus more intensely on supporting learners’ emotional needs and motivation for learning. An emphasis on digital tools impacts traditional teaching, and many tasks for educators in the classroom may become restricted to “contingency management”. Adapting professional development and career structures to the new situation is critical in this scenario: professionals in schools could feel less satisfied with their job if they perceive a disconnect between their professional development and the tasks they are asked to perform.

Traditional schooling systems break down as society becomes more directly involved in educating its citizens. Learning takes place through more diverse, privatised and flexible arrangements, with digital technology a key driver.   

In this scenario, diverse forms of private and community-based initiatives emerge as an alternative to schooling. Highly flexible working arrangements have allowed greater parental involvement in children’s education, and public systems struggle with families’ pressure towards privatisation. Choice plays a key role – of those buying educational services and of those, such as employers, giving market value to different learning routes.

Great experimentation in organisational forms takes place, including a mix of home-schooling, tutoring, online learning and community-based teaching and learning. In some countries, public and private providers compete to improve the quality of provision. In others, public provision remains purely a “remedial solution”, providing parents with free or low-cost child care service and offering children access to learning opportunities and activities to structure their day.

A substantial reduction of traditional bureaucratic patterns of governance and accountability takes place as education outsourcing deepens. Different credentials and indicators of quality emerge with the explosion of providers in the “learning market”, although private solutions are dependent on how well they meet perceived needs. In addition, governments, in the best interest of children, may retain the power to benchmark and steer market operators through baseline assessments. With greater privatisation and individualised educational paths, concerns about growing social fragmentation have become a recurrent issue in politics across countries and a revival of conscription – in this case with civic rather than military purposes – is becoming a common policy response.

Parents of younger children, rely on public care services or participate in self-organised community networks or market-based services brokered by digital platforms for their care. As learners grow older and more autonomous, and their learning involves more sophisticated tasks, specialised learning platforms and advice services (digital and face-to-face, public and private) play a larger role. Employers become more involved in the business of education, including large corporations but also small and medium sized enterprises. Traditionally lacking the financial and technical capacity to become involved, SMEs have benefited from increasing financial support derived from the additional resources available from school consolidation processes.

The abandonment of rigid structures of traditional schooling (i.e. year groupings, educational stages) provides learners with greater flexibility to move at their own pace and potentially combine formal learning with other activities. In this sense, greater choice in learning programmes (length, scope, cost, etc.) translates into learning solutions that are more adaptive to individual needs and, potentially, more aligned to the goal of lifelong learning. On the other hand, a larger variety of learning suppliers may not result in radically different teaching and learning experiences for learners. Cultural aspects of traditional schooling organisation may well survive in this scenario, such as teacher and student roles.

Learning networks bring different human resources together according to perceived needs and as a result traditional conventions, contractual arrangements, and career structures in teaching are rapidly eroded. There is greater variety of teaching profiles, working arrangements, and professional and reputational status in a workforce operating in public schooling (physically or digitally), as independent carers, career advisors, skills market analysts, pedagogy specialists in private platforms or others.

Schools remain, but diversity and experimentation are the norm. Opening the “school walls” connects schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation.  

In this scenario, strong schools retain most of their functions. They continue to look after children and hold activities that structure young people’s time, contributing to their cognitive, social, and emotional development. At the same time, more sophisticated and diverse forms of competence recognition in the labour market liberate education and thus schools from excessive pressures of credentialism, potentially reversing current trends towards longer individual school careers.

In this scenario, international awareness and exchange is strong, but power shifts to the decentralised elements in the system. Local actors come up with their own initiatives to achieve the values they consider important. Schools are defined as strong where intense connections with the community and other local services are developed. This implies that, on the one hand, systems are no longer based on uniformity, although strong pressures for corrective action surface where there is evidence that a particular school is under-performing. The criteria upon which schools are judged varies across communities and high-stakes decisions, such as closures, may depend on whether a degree of consensus is achieved among local stakeholders. On the other hand, regulatory and strategic frameworks (local, national, international) and targeted, pre-distributive investment and technical assistance support the action of local communities, and play a key role within communities with weaker social infrastructure.

Schooling is characterised by its comprehensiveness and is grounded in cultures of experimentation and diversity. Personalised pathways are strengthened within a general framework of collaborative work, self-evaluation and peer accountability. Sorting practices such as grades and tracking have been abandoned and permutations in the organisation of teaching and learning are flexible and constantly changing. A wide range of sources of learning are recognised and valued and distinctions between formal and non-formal learning become blurred. Learning is ongoing; it is an all-day activity guided by education professionals, but may not always take place within the confines of classrooms and schools.

School activities are planned and designed in the context of broader education planning beyond their own walls, resulting in flexible structures (physical infrastructure, schedules) to accommodate blended learning activities supported by digital information systems. Schools are in this sense the centrepiece of wider, dynamically evolving local education ecosystems, mapping learning opportunities across an interconnected network of educational spaces. This way, diverse individual and institutional players offer a variety of skills and expertise that can be brought in to support student learning.

Learning builds on “teachable moments” as defined by collective and learner-specific needs and local developments instead of uniform and rigid curricula. Teachers act as engineers of ever-evolving learning activities, and trust in teacher professionalism is high. Teachers with strong pedagogical knowledge and close connections to multiple networks are crucial. This scenario is thus driven by a strong emphasis on teacher initial education and professional development, although these may develop in more flexible and collegiate ways than they do today.

Simultaneously, schools are open to the participation of non-teaching professionals in teaching. A prominent role for professionals other than teachers, community actors, parents, and others is expected, and indeed, welcomed. Strong partnerships are also welcomed as schools seek to leverage the resources of external institutions, such as museums, libraries, residential centres, technological hubs and others.

Education takes place everywhere, anytime. Distinctions between formal and informal learning are no longer valid as society turns itself entirely to the power of the machine.   

This scenario builds on the rapid advancements of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and the Internet of Things. Vast connectivity powered by an extensive and rich digital infrastructure and abundance of data have completely changed our perception of education and learning. Learning opportunities are widely available for “free”, marking the decline of established curriculum structures and dismantling of the school system.

Digitalisation has made it possible to assess and certify knowledge, skills and attitudes in a deep and practically instantaneous manner, and the intermediary role of trusted third parties (e.g. educational institutions, private learning providers) in certification is no longer necessary. As the distinction between formal and informal learning disappears, massive public resources previously devoted to large-scale schooling infrastructure become liberated to serve other purposes or education through other means.

This scenario sketches a world where all sources of learning become “legitimate” and people’s education advances by leveraging collective intelligence to solve real-life problems. Lifelong AI personal assistants connect to the environment and among themselves to feed their information systems and propose personalised learning solutions, building on individuals’ curiosity and needs, helping to identify knowledge and skills gaps, encouraging creativity and self-expression and connecting learners one another in communities of common purpose. No language barriers exist in access to learning and collaboration with others; accurate translation is now automatic and in real time.

Distinctions between education, work and leisure become blurred. Enterprises make use of AI applications for their recruitment processes, and available workers also obtain information on and access opportunities as well as to continue learning as they work. Part of the old school system infrastructure may remain, although its function is much more open and flexible. There are no mandatory requirements, at least in-person and with fixed schedules. Places for learning welcome children in a drop in basis, as do open and private, digital or face-to-face learning communities.

Similar to scenario 2, alternative “childcare” arrangements may be necessary with the demise of physical schools. In this scenario, digitalisation and “smart” infrastructure favour the creation of safe and learning-rich public and private spaces. Building on surveillance systems, digitally connected, interactive infrastructure, such as intelligent playgrounds, can now look after children while proposing them with learning activities and fostering behaviours towards the satisfaction of certain goals (e.g. healthy lifestyles).

It is difficult to advance the role of governments vis-à-vis private interests in the market and civil society. Global digital corporations may play a key role, for instance, in powering learning systems and new human-machine interfaces, but it is also possible that these co-habit with a diversity of bottom-up, non-for-profit initiatives. Although not a given, these developments could develop within the confines of strong regulatory regimes – ensuring algorithm transparency and ethics by design, for example – or through platforms sponsored or directly run by public authorities – local, national or international. Developments around data ownership, democracy and citizen empowerment will have an important impact on these discussions (see the OECD Going Digital scenarios (OECD, 2018, p. 21[6])).

The teaching professional has vanished in this society where rich learning opportunities are available anytime and everywhere and individuals have become prosumers (professional consumers) of their own learning. At the same time, classes, lectures and various forms of tutoring may be commonplace both offline and on, some articulated by humans, others created by the machine.


[5] Loewus, L. (2017), Schools Take a Page From Silicon Valley With ’Scrum’ Approach - Education Week, Education Week, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/11/01/schools-take-a-page-from-silicon-valley.html (accessed on 6 May 2020).

[4] Milord, J. (2019), No degree? No problem. Here are the jobs at Top Companies you can land without one | LinkedIn, LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/degree-problem-you-can-still-land-jobs-top-companies-joseph-milord/ (accessed on 4 May 2020).

[2] OECD (2019), Trends Shaping Education 2019, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/trends_edu-2019-en.

[6] OECD (2018), Going digital in a multilateral world, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/going-digital/C-MIN-2018-6-EN.pdf (accessed on 3 May 2020).

[1] OECD (2001), What Schools for the Future?, Schooling for Tomorrow, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264195004-en.

[3] Skidelsky, L. (2019), How to achieve shorter working hours, Progressive Economy Forum, London, https://progressiveeconomyforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/PEF_Skidelsky_How_to_achieve_shorter_working_hours.pdf (accessed on 27 May 2020).

[7] Williamson, B. (2016), “Silicon startup schools: technocracy, algorithmic imaginaries and venture philanthropy in corporate education reform”, Critical Studies in Education, Vol. 59/2, pp. 218-236, https://doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2016.1186710.

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