Dr Conrad Hughes, Principal, International School of Geneva, Switzerland

Dr Conrad Hughes led two major projects with UNESCO-IBE to rethink the guiding principles for learning in the 21st Century and preventing violent extremism through education. He has published three books on different aspects of 21st Century learning. Understanding Education and Prejudice (2017) looks at how schools and universities can reduce prejudicial thinking in students and instructors; in Educating for the 21st Century (2019), he investigates how educational systems can address societal challenges such as sustainability, the rise of AI, post-truth politics, mindfulness and future-proof knowledge. His latest book, Education and Elitism (2021), discusses how access to high quality education can be widened. Dr Hughes is a member of the advisory board for the University of the People and research assistant at the University of Geneva’s department of psychology and education. He is a regular contributor to the World Economic Forum’s Agenda blog and speaks in conferences across the globe.


As students make their way through the formal curriculum of most schools, the pattern is similar across contexts and systems: primary and middle school involve creative transdisciplinary projects, a broad-based spread of different types of learning with the arts and physical education featuring prominently. Days are fairly short and there is not too much homework.

However, as students enter the secondary school, they move closer and closer to terminal examinations that tend to be high stakes and narrow (meaning that they measure a handful of competences only, generally timed writing, knowledge regurgitation, analytical response and the structured presentation of ideas).

The valency of these examinations casts a shadow over the last years of high school: students are stressed, teachers have to teach to the test, scores and grades become the most important element. So much boils down to what happens in an examination room.

This is not the case for all systems: the North American approach asks students to do well consistently over the last years of their schooling and to show evidence of a rounded character. However, even in this system, the grade average becomes the critical gateway, and that is calculated using the end of year grades.

European and British universities are essentially only interested in the end of high school examination performance, or if they are interested in more (critical thinking, interview technique, personality), it comes after, and only after, examination performance.

With global pandemics, conflict, increasing pressure on university entrance, bleak forecasts about Generation Z’s chances of economic prosperity in a predetermined world economic market, it is not surprising that student wellbeing has become the number one issue to address in schools. Mental illness, anxiety and depression are soaring in young people. And yet, the factory line of examinations, pitching one individual against the next, driving students into the ground, keeping them awake till unholy hours, continues.

As a Head of School, I cannot look at this situation and do nothing about it. We need to reform the system and the place to start is with the piece of paper that students are working towards to leave school, since it is this document that casts the longest shadow over the end of high school. If we can change what we ask of students, how we ask them to perform, who we ask them to become, we will be doing good work.

This is why I created the Coalition to Honour all Learning, a federation of schools and universities across the world that aims to influence the discussion on school leaving certificates.

We represent over 100,000 students in national, independent and international systems across the world. The schools in the coalition are using alternative transcripts or are on the journey to implement alternative transcripts. By alternative transcript, we mean a credit system that looks beyond academic grades only. These include the Ecolint Learner Passport, microcredentialing, the global citizenship diploma or mastery transcript, to mention a few.

We invite all post-secondary institutions, including universities, colleges and industries across the globe, to open their admissions criteria beyond academic subject grades and to recognise competences as captured in alternative school transcripts.

Our group meets periodically to share how we are going about this important work in our different institutions, we release a monthly podcast and are developing an interactive competence framework matrix that will allow universities and schools to communicate their graduating protocols and admissions policies.

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