2050 is now closer to us than 1995 is.

What does the future hold in store for us? How can we shape the future?

One way to start is by knowing the deep trends that are driving the world forward. 

Megatrends are explosive, long-term trends that have a huge, global impact: powerful forces that create pressing new challenges, threats and opportunities. 

What political, economic, cultural, technological and societal forces are most pressing on us as school leaders?

‘The real problem of humanity is this: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.’

Technology is exponential.

Economics is fast-evolving.

Cultures clash. 

Politics stumbles. 

Society gets confused. 

Education is conflicted. 

The long-view: human history accelerates

Humans were hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. 

It’s only in the last 0.01% of human history or less that humans have had access to running water, plentiful food, sewage, electricity, antibiotics, hospital medicine, neonatal care, vaccines, schools, anaesthetic surgery, fridges, central heating, air conditioning, trains, pharmacies, painkillers, contraception, films, websites, therapy, representative democracies, universal suffrage and broad, enduring (albeit still precarious) peace. 

Four Megatrends that affect education

1. Instant infinite information

For more than a decade now, the rise of cloud computing, satellite internet and data storage has created a super-abundance of ultra-accessible information, available from our pockets and at our fingertips, trending towards full accessibility of the world’s libraries, books, and uploaded thinking, anywhere, anytime. The flipside is we feel overloaded, deluged, avalanched in a killer infoglut tsunami and infodemic.

2. Free comms and media

In the last decade or so, software development, microprocessors, electronics, operating systems and user interfaces, liquid crystal display, gorilla/dragontail glass, streaming and smartphone/tablet/laptop supercomputers have created, for billions of people, free mail, messaging, documents, sheets, slides, wikis, forms, surveys, quizzes, quizzing apps, notes apps, online classrooms, sites, videos, games, video-meets, networks, maps, cameras, news and contactless payments. We are trending towards it being free for us all to create our own websites, videos, apps, books, courses for others. This juggernaut risks a very human doomscrolling addiction to our tiny, ubiquitous supercomputers, as can be seen any day on the train.

3. Cobots as assistants, tutors, coaches

In just the last few years and months, generative, conversational artificial intelligence and machine learning is creating free writing assistants, free personal assistants, free learning assistants, free healthcare assistants, free finance assistants, free personal trainers, free home, travel, entertainment and legal assistants, trending towards increasing sophistication, trending towards each having a free career/professional development coach and a free life coach. With the AI genie out of the bottle, this risks mass-automation of jobs, even in the two sectors of the economy with the most professionals – healthcare and education – who are under increasing pressure to deal with the seemingly-ever-increasing costs of care, surgery, treatment, education, schooling and tuition.

4. Lifelong learning

In the last century globally, life expectancy has risen from 49 in 1920 to 75 in 2020. Most people are living longer, healthier lives, with better healthcare, nutrition, housing, sanitation and education than ever before in human history. The world’s thinkers are sharing their thinking in easy-to-access talks, books, podcasts, videos, sites, courses and online classrooms. The world’s best learners are reading, studying, noting, summarising, writing, listening to talks / audiobooks / interviews / dialogues, sharing, attending conferences / workshops / tutorials / seminars, apprenticing, experimenting, self-coaching, planning, journalling, taking think weeks/retreats/secondments/sabbaticals and mini-retirements. As fully flexible working, online learning and remote collaboration from home or from anywhere becomes the norm almost everywhere, schools and hospitals struggle to attract and recruit teachers and healthcare workers who need to be on site.

Confronting these deep, long-lasting, powerful, perhaps-irreversible changes, let’s turn to schools.

Can we handle the downsides of distractability, overload, addictiveness and disorientating displacement, and realise the full potential of democratisation, empowerment, creativity, community, wisdom and fulfilment?

What other contexts and specific pressures do heads and schools work under? What are the threats and the opportunities?


Fiercest of the political forces for schools is growing hostility and mistrust; the fiercest economic force is long-standing deprivation, and the permanent increase in demand in the labour market for flexibility, risking a mass staff exodus; the fiercest societal-cultural forces are hyper-individualism in the west, and more recent identitarianism and authoritarianism; the fiercest technological force is the combined rise of the internet, smartphones, social media, phone addiction, echo chambers, cancel culture, online risks and teen wellbeing/resilience crashes.

I’ve worked with some of the bravest and most fearless headteachers out there. Heads who take on the orthodoxy. Heads who run towards the fire and take the flak and fury. Heads who were prepared to speak out and say they think the system is broken. And even they are scared of the current context. It seems harder than it’s ever been to be a headteacher in this landscape. 

Political mistrust

Schools in the west are experiencing declines in trust. Mistrust in schools spiked from 20% to 35% from 2018 to 2022, one survey suggests.

Economic deprivation and demand for flexibility

There are millions of children living in poverty, struggling to access education. 

A new and recent force is the surge in demand for flexibility and working from home several days a week. Schools struggle to provide this flexibility for teachers and school leaders, who need to be in person with students. 

Technological addiction

Children are spending more time on their phones, online and on social media than ever before, fracturing their attention, disconnecting them from in-person activity and clubs.

Cultural fragmentation 

Individualism and consumerism seem rampant. The US and UK are around 90% individualistic, in contrast to South & Central America and Africa, which are around 90% communitarian, according to researcher Geer Hofstede. Authoritarian identitarianism and cancel culture seem to be creating a climate of fear and self-censorship. 67% of respondents to a recent Policy Institute student survey admitted that they feel they can’t say what they think, and hold back on expressing their opinions because they feared what others might think of them. 

Threats schools encounter, in summary, include mistrust, a staff exodus, cultural fragmentation, addiction and societal risks like pandemics and financial/economic crashes.


Schools can build people’s trust

For decades, the world’s governments have entrusted schools with trillions of pounds. 

Teachers and schools are the great investments in the future of humankind.

Schools can build in flexibility

In recent decades, schools have started to join forces in trusts and, in the U.S., charter networks, to pool resources, achieve economies of scale, invest together and share expertise.

School can build intelligence.

We can educate for deep subject expertise, for character, for wise and ethical decision-making. We can understand artificial intelligence and intelligently automate the activities that our staff and teachers have never especially enjoyed doing, to allow all our people to flourish.

Schools can build community.

We can bring people and disparate communities together. We can create dignity for all our children, including those with the most severe disabilities.

Schools can build resilience.

Educating our young people and future leaders can help prepare our world for grey rhinos and black swans like cyberattacks/internet crashes, climate change floods/shortages/migrations, global great depressions, dictatorships and war.


Schools have opportunities to lead civilisation and humanity into the future.

The megatrends: instant infinite information, free comms and media, free assistants, and lifelong learning.

The opportunities: trust. flexibility. intelligence. community. resilience.

School leaders hold the future of the world in their hands.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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