Futures in Education

Introduction to Shaping the Future video (1996)

In 2006 an event called The Earth Dialogues took place in Brisbane’s City Hall. Prominent among the guests was Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of Russia and chief architect of Perestroika. It’s not often that you get to encounter such prominent historical figures, let along to meet them in person. Yet it was a rather different meeting that remains prominent in my memory.

At the end of a fairly modest and low-key panel session a young woman with a friendly smile approached and said how pleased she was to finally meet me. When I enquired as to why it turned out that she’d been a student in one of the trial schools for the Futures subject that I’d worked on in the mid-1990s, some ten years earlier. I remember her saying how much she’d enjoyed taking part in the trial curriculum. In fact, she added, it had been one of the highlights of her school experience.

Back in 1994 I’d been appointed Chair of a Subject Advisory Committee (SAC) by the then Board of Senior Secondary School Studies (BSSSS). Since I was living in Melbourne at the time this necessitated regular trips to Brisbane. I was one of a number of people who worked on the proposal and the draft curriculum for a subject that was finally called Futures – Personal, Social, Global. Of all the many meetings I took part in the one I particularly recall was that of the BSSS Curriculum Committee and its unanimous vote for the new subject.

With a PhD in Futures Education and a background in school and university teaching I’d never considered a Futures subject per se the best or only option. As had been affirmed by the 1994 Wiltshire Report, I felt that all subjects should contain a futures perspective. Still, to have a subject was a significant step forward in practice (which had for many years lagged behind theory), in general awareness and also in legitimation. So when the work of the SAC was completed the baton was passed to the BSSSS whose task it was to complete the trial and launch the new subject. The pre-pilot syllabus was released in 1998 for use in ‘approved schools’ commencing with Year 11 in 1999. I still have copies of interim reports from that time.

During 1999, however, the BSSSS was subject to re-organisation and, during that process, the Futures subject somehow ‘got lost.’ The substantial amounts of energy, idealism and old-fashioned work that had been poured into the project came to nothing. The support and guidance provided by the Board’s Curriculum Committee were similarly overlooked. An innovation that could have led on to many others simply disappeared without trace late in the trial process and no one could subsequently explain why. Some years later I asked a different Queensland Minister of Education why this had occurred. His only comment was that there’d been ‘no one on the board to see the project through.’ Although he was in no way responsible, I felt that part of the story still remained untold.

Since then I’ve reflected on the fact that it’s at just such times that the veneer is stripped away from state bureaucracies and the interests that decide what education is about are briefly seen, if only as shadowy forces in the background. Which brings me to these clips of a short documentary from 1996 called Shaping the Future. It is, in fact, the only record we have that not only features some of those, such as myself and Kathleen Rundle who worked on the project, but also students in a classroom environment who are actually using futures tools and concepts. Moreover, their teacher is seen and heard discussing the trial program. We should listen carefully. For what this story reveals is an ethical scandal and a monumental lost opportunity. Something of great value – not only to young people but also to the country at large – was lost.

Had the subject been given its chance to develop and thrive, one would not be having occasional meetings with former students and listening to their favourable but dimming accounts of a standout program. Rather, we would be meeting or hearing about hundreds, if not thousands, of students and former students who, during their later secondary years, had had the opportunity to pick up, understand and benefit from some of the more accessible tools and concepts of the futures field.

Had that taken place – as was the will and intention of the profession at the time – we would now have reason for greater confidence in the ability of the current younger generation to deal with a world spiraling ever more out of control. A world that is in real danger of ‘overshoot and collapse.’ As it is, a dozen or more cohorts of young people throughout the nation have had that option removed and it’s unlikely to be retrieved. I’d like to think that responsibility for the abandonment of Futures – Personal, Social, Global will one day be officially acknowledged. Perhaps then the loss could be made good for a later generation. There are certainly more sources and more recent exemplars to draw upon than ever before.

In the meantime I invite you to view the clips below and to make up your own mind.

Further reading

Slaughter, R. Futures Education: Catalyst for Our Times, Journal of Futures Studies, February 12, 3, 2008, pp 15 – 30.

Slaughter, R. Evaluating ‘Overshoot and Collapse’ Futures, World Future Review, 2, 4, 2010 pp 5-18.

Slaughter, R. The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Brisbane, Foresight International, 2010.

Shaping the Future – An Introduction to Futures Studies in Education part 1 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qxQ4mTjvag

Shaping the Future – An Introduction to Futures Studies in Education part 2 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=panXLgvZRo4

For further details of the program and its background, click the link below.

Futures Education: Catalyst for Our Times (2008) (To open click here)


The rest of this page contains links to a selection of my papers on Futures in Education (not the future of education, which involves a rather different focus). As some may already know this was the theme of my Ph.D. (Critical Futures Studies and Curriculum Renewal, University of Lancaster, 1982). Since that time I’ve continued to work in the area. Following the publication of Education for the 21st Century, with Hedley Beare, I wrote many other pieces that were published in a variety of places. Some of these are currently being edited and brought together in a companion volume to the one described below. This second volume is called Futures in Education: an Unfinished Journey and is expected to be available later in 2011. (Please note that Adobe Reader – or a suitable PDF viewer – must be installed on your computer to open these files.)

Intro to Education for the 21st Century Revisited, 2011: Click here to download PDF

“Futures in Education: Catalyst for Our Times”: Click here to download PDF version

Beyond ‘the future of…’ Responding to the Civilisational Challenge, ACER Conference Papers, Melbourne, 2008. (Australian Council of Educational Research.)


Edn_21C_Mind_Map_1993Mind map of the original Education for the 21st Century, from 1993. This image was produced by G. White.

It’s interesting to see some of the major themes of the book illustrated graphically.

This device makes it possible to gain a conceptual overview very quickly.

Tribute to Hedley Beare

I first met Hedley Beare when I came to Melbourne to address the Futures in Education conference during November 1986. Like many others I was immediately struck by his geniality and openness, his quiet manner and generosity of spirit. He was someone you immediately trusted and knew you could rely on. So it was with enormous pleasure that in 1989 I joined his Department at the University of Melbourne as a ‘lecturer in futures and social education.’ Unlike many, then and now, Hedley understood the rational for this particular description and, furthermore, did everything he could to encourage and support it.

As professor the demands on his time sometimes seemed endless. So, as time went by he would therefore occasionally ask me if I could fill in for him when he was too busy to respond to a particular speaking engagement. It was always an honour to do so. One of the things that most stood out about Hedley was the way he so consistently sought to promote and support his colleagues. I’ve met very few people – in academia or elsewhere – who have this kind of genuine, in-built concern for others. But this quality shone forth in Hedley and, as a result, the rewards of working with him were considerable. For example when he was hosting some particularly interesting visitor for lunch, he’d also invite one or two of us to join them. He also knew how to throw the conversation open so that you always felt valued and included.

Edn 21C cover no shadowHedley_RS_Ed21C_1993_small

After a couple of years a conversation began to develop between us about how education could be framed so as to become more forward looking, not just in rhetoric and generalised intent, but also in on-the-ground practice. We’d both been speaking along these lines and, in his words ‘workshopping’ some of the ideas about how that could occur. So it seemed a natural step to begin thinking about writing a book that would be clear and accessible, bringing these ideas and suggestions for practice together. The result was Education for the 21st Century, which was published in 1993. With his extensive networks in Australia and overseas and also the respect in which he was universally held, the book received wide publicity and unusual acceptance within the profession.


Working with him on the book was a delight. We started by deciding which of the eight chapters (including the conclusion) that each would write. As one was drafted we’d hand it over to the other with a free hand to review it and make any changes at all. So we effectively edited each other’s work. The arrangement worked perfectly because we were fundamentally in accord and the issue of contending egos simply did not arise. Hedley’s sense of humour is evident in the flier reproduced here, as is his considerable artistic skill. We were both delighted at the response – and the sales – that the book generated. In my case its success also meant that I could move on from being a newcomer, an ‘unknown quantity,’ so far as the publisher was concerned. This opened the door. Over time it led to the establishment of a Futures in Education series and the publication by Routledge of several other works by emerging authors.


In late 1991 or early 1992 we received a visit from member of SEAMEO (the South East Asia Ministers of Education Organisation) and were subsequently invited to go to Manila in June 1992 to take part in the wrap-up of a large-scale Delphi survey. To my surprise I was asked to chair the ‘expert panel’ and Hedley was one of its distinguished members. We worked hard for a couple of days and then were treated to a brief tour of the sights of Manila, some of which were described as ‘another of Mrs Marcos’ projects, and one of which was a vast war cemetery. During this excursion we made the classic mistake. It was a hot and humid day and we were expiring in the back of the car. Our hosts, with every good intention, bought us a couple of cold drinks that we soon had cause to regret. I don’t know how long Hedley suffered the consequences but I was still managing the symptoms a week later.

Overall, my time working with Hedley was one of the high points of my career. For the first time I felt part of a team that was going somewhere. I was in demand from schools, publishing in professional journals and beginning to write books of my own. April 1993 saw the first iteration of the Knowledge Base of Futures Studies and The Foresight Principle was drafted soon thereafter. But this happy period was not to last.

For reasons that were never entirely clear, but which were not unrelated to the rigours of amalgamation and restructuring that were then taking place, my time at Melbourne U. came to an abrupt end rather more quickly than my apparent success had suggested would be the case. (The Dean said: ‘you’re an essential member of the team.’ But the HOD said ‘I’ll put this as a question – do you think you really belong here?’) There was not a lot that Hedley could do. So in 1994 I had the interesting – not to say schizophrenic – experience of being flown first class to Mexico City to address an international Futures conference and losing my job at the same time! When I got back someone had already unhooked my computer, even though my books were still on the shelves…

Hedley and I stayed in touch. We co-presented at a conference in Canberra and often exchanged ideas and papers. He was delighted for me when in 1999 I was appointed Foundation Professor of Foresight at Swinburne. We met from time to time. But I particularly recall meeting in an Italian restaurant in Lygon Street sometime in 2004 to exchange our new books. I gave him an inscribed copy of Futures Beyond Dystopia. He returned the compliment with Creating the Future School. In more recent years we discussed the possibility of writing a follow-up to our earlier work. But as his health declined and my workload increased we were unable to do so.


I last saw Hedley at his home in 2006. Lyn provided tea and biscuits. Hedley had already survived several bouts of ill health. He spoke about perhaps ‘having time to do about a thousand things,’ indicating that he felt time was closing in on him. I last spoke with him by ‘phone when he was back in hospital during August 2010. He sounded weak but not bowed. He spoke about the desirability of our work outliving us. I, in turn, promised to respect what we’d done together and to perhaps give it a new lease of life in due course. He died at home on September 5th, 2010.

There are very few people who stand out above the rest, whose very existence makes other lives brighter and more productive. Hedley was indeed one of the rare few and I’ll always be grateful. Working with him remains one the highlights of my own life and his legacy will endure for many years to come.

Brisbane, 28th September, 2010

Futures in Education – Substance Not Rhetoric (Op Ed piece for The Age, 1997)  To open click here

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