From education to employment

Why the general election is an opportunity for politicians to get the public behind a single, simple strategy for skills and lifelong learning that will solve the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’

Graham Hasting-Evans, Group Managing Director, NOCN

Whatever your view on Leave or Remain – and don’t worry; I will be keeping this Brexit-neutral – there is no doubt that our future relationship with the EU has consumed vast amounts of time, energy and money since 2016’s referendum.

While it is, of course, very important, impacting on so many aspects of civil society and public concern, it has become the most dominant issue for politicians, the media and many citizens, public servants, government agencies and businesses since WW2.

It is a monumental, all-consuming distraction and other vital concerns have been neglected as a result.

Among them are:

  • Climate change and other environmental warning flags;
  • Globalisation and the hyper competitive markets this has bred;
  • The ascendancy of fleet-footed agile international competitors, such as the BRIC nations; and
  • The massive opportunities and threats presented by an unstoppable digital revolution.

And now campaigning is underway for what was initially touted as the ‘Brexit election’.

Shining a light on a wider range of concerns

However, something unexpected has happened: amidst the opening salvos and usual mudslinging, the light has been shone on a wider range of other concerns, with the NHS, public spending, police numbers and even the environment getting an airing

And, it is to be hoped that learning, education and training will also receive the attention that it so sorely requires.

For, without an appropriately skilled, literate, numerate and digitally adept workforce, the UK cannot rise to the challenges of the 21st century.

Falling Productivity

We started the millennium from a disadvantageous position, as we continued to trail the pack in terms of productivity and there is no sign of any improvement soon.

Our workers’ output fell yet again in the last quarter of 2018, down on the same period in the previous year, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that labour productivity was lower over the past decade than at any time in the 20th Century.

Indeed, records show that it has taken the UK a decade to achieve the 2% growth that was traditionally posted in a single year.

This dire performance is made all the more worrying for a number of reasons:

  • The problem’s stubborn persistence – it has been going on for well over ten years
  • The incredibly urgent need to equip ourselves sufficiently to seize the advantages of the fourth industrial revolution – which other nations are embracing, driving and thriving within – while shielding ourselves from its downsides, and because
  • No dynamic, truly universal solution has been suggested by the political classes.

Close the Gap

The subject is such an important one that we recently joined forces with City and Guilds (C&G) to co-author a report, Close the Gap, which called for joined up policy on apprenticeships, skills, lifelong learning and employability.

We believe that the UK must have a single, properly funded and publicised national vision and strategy for young people and adults to replace the existing host of disparate initiatives that will drive profound fragmentation of the skills landscape across the four nations.

It would unify these into a solitary, coherent, regulated technical, vocational education and training (TVET) system for all sectors from Entry Level to Level 7, which complements and links with the academic route.

Based on nationally agreed standards and curriculums, the straightforward plan will serve the economy, employers, young people, adults and society as a whole and provide a sound platform for delivering any future government’s meaningful education strategy.

As well as solving our productivity problem for greater GDP, putting a tiger in the tank of UK global competitiveness and fostering enhanced innovation, it would trigger dramatic upticks in educational aspiration, social mobility and community cohesion.

We are awaiting a reaction from the political parties to our proposals for such an agile, integrated system – and while a snap election is another massively distracting project for them, it is also the perfect opportunity to put the subject on the national agenda.

2019 party manifestos

However, while the 2019 party manifestos have not been published yet, the signs are hardly encouraging. So far, there has been little of substance discussed or debated on improving the national mechanics of learning, training and development – or even wider education issues.

Sure, there have been spending pledges and the usual posturing about tuition fees, however hard details are in short supply. Certainly, no politicians have presented a specific, heartfelt vision on how effective learning management and deployment can create the adult skilling for economic demand that would lift national output.

If they do not make a case for voters to weigh up and judge at the upcoming poll, it will be incredibly dismaying, since the UK currently has some nine million workers with inadequate literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

Urgent need to upskill our workers

And our joint research with C&G forecasts that those with few or no skills will increase sharply over the next five years. This will be accompanied by a catastrophic shortage of available qualified personnel for the growing number of professional, scientific and technical jobs that any modern, outward looking economy needs.

Clearly, this can’t go on. Those on the thresholds of their career – particularly learners in FE colleges, sixth forms and apprenticeships – must be informed and enthused about the avenues open to them. And these options must be universal, with all opportunities available to everybody of sufficient ability and potential.

By the same token, adults in employment should be both encouraged and enabled to advance along their professional paths with the continual acquisition of new skills or qualifications – whether within their current field or by transferring to new sectors.

Lifelong learning and development will make for a flexible workforce that bristles with the confidence and competencies that will be needed to keep this country at the forefront in the century ahead.

As such, our politicians must address the ever more urgent need to upskill our workers, put them on the front foot and keep them there. C&G and ourselves certainly hope that all political parties will get behind our recommendations and communicate their benefits to the public, but even if they disagree with them, let’s have that debate.

Let’s get talking about all that is at stake and forge a resolution, while there is still time to catch up with international competitors who are putting clear blue water between us and them.

Graham Hasting-Evans, Managing Director, NOCN

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