From education to employment

OECD findings a real cause for concern

Recent findings from the OECD – as reported by FE News – comparing the skills of 16-to-65-year-olds across 34 countries should be a real wake up call for the UK.

It confirmed what many of us see every day, whether we work in the sector or in business and we are looking to recruit talent: the skill levels of many school leavers are not really improving.

Whilst this is not new, the findings are similar to those from the past such as the Leitch Review in 2006 and the 2011 Skills for Life survey, the OECD report sets out how far behind the UK is compared to global competitors and, more worryingly, how we are falling further and further behind.

Many solutions have been tried by governments, of all persuasions, in terms of both standards – national literacy and numeracy hours, changes to the curriculum and the introduction of new qualifications for example – and structures – such as the move to Academies and free schools. Some of these are still relatively recent, with little evidence yet available on the efficacy of these interventions, but they do show how much thought, effort and resource is concentrated on schools in particular, and the skills sector more generally. What it also shows, though, is how difficult it is for the education and skills sector to concentrate on the job in hand: many argue too much time is spent responding to the latest government diktat rather than on high quality teaching and learning.

Alongside this the exponential rise in the availability of technologies which is also having an enormous effect. The introduction of MOOCs, for example, and the increasing prevalence of high-end mobile devices is changing the expectations of how people, of all ages, want to access and engage with their educational content. The world is changing and we need to change too if we are not going to be left even further behind.

One interesting finding from the OECD is it is the actual level of ability which is not improving. We can see younger students have more qualifications than older people but their ability to undertake tasks and solve problems is just not what it should be. Employers are constantly bemoaning the lack of basic skills such as maths and English amongst the young as well as those others skills crucial to being effective at work: team working and communication for example. What is needed is more time learning. For example in maths more time is needed to develop students’ understanding of how concepts and processes can be deployed in real life and contextualised in different environments. Maths needs to be more embedded in other subjects with more functional understanding of the subject being taught. As well as this we need to ensure, once and for all, any teacher, of any cohort, can only teach maths and English if they have a sound knowledge themselves, the shortage of good maths graduates going into teaching, for example, is a real concern for the future.

What is clear is we cannot go on like this, countries in the Far East as well as those closer to home will continue to surge ahead. We need to understand what they are doing and look to replicate it in the UK. We also, as a sector and as professionals, need to have an unwavering commitment to improving these skills, at all ages. The OECD set out how those countries with a large share of low-skilled adults, including the UK, need to make learning more accessible. At learndirect this is what we do – make learning available to people in their local communities and in their workplaces.

Government support for Apprenticeships, new approaches to the governance of schools, integrating skills and employability services, introducing Traineeships – all these policies should help to make a difference. The challenge for the sector is to ensure these policy developments meet the needs of our learners, now and in the future. My focus is on ensuring learndirect meets the challenge.

Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation

Related Articles