As we near the end of January and many of us are lamenting our failed New Year resolutions to drink less/eat more healthily/visit the gym more often/empty our email inbox weekly/ring our mum more regularly or walk the dog further than the pub on the corner, the Government is optimistically looking ahead with the publication of its Green Paper, Building Our Industrial Strategy.
Clearly with an eye on post-Brexit Britain, the almost inevitable widening of the skills gap and the need to bolster a potentially uncertain economy, the Prime Minister and her Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark, have identified 10 pillars of wisdom which they believe will enable us to match the per-hour productivity of France, Germany and the US.
The UK has a larger proportion of people with degrees than the OECD average yet consistently underperforms in terms of productivity. With one of the highest rates of graduate underemployment in the world, this might tell us something! Thankfully for the nation’s hard-working JAMS, improving productivity does not mean ‘making people work harder’, but helping them to ‘work smarter’ and the Green Paper has suggestions how we can make this happen.
The Green Paper, rightly in my view, identifies our poor performance in technical skills as being behind our persistently low levels of productivity, but in the pillar entitled ‘developing skills’, fails to address the fundamental disparity of status with academic qualifications which lies at the root of the problem.
The Government’s introduction of the requirement for every 16-18-year old to pass a GCSE English and maths exam may have resulted in more young people retaking the subjects, but hasn’t translated into them passing them. Inevitably, and unfairly, the Government places the responsibility at the door of FE colleges, but fails to examine the curriculum it has created and claims it wants employers and industry to inform.
According to the Ipsos Mori poll cited in the Green Paper, 10 million adults in England lack basic digital skills. It proposes new legislation to provide free, publicly-funded training for adults and will determine what digital training will be included in the new technical education routes. If digital training is reserved for ‘technical education’ post-16 then are we to assume that those 10 million adults have taken an academic route into their career which doesn’t require digital skills? If digital literacy is important, then why impose a narrow EBacc which excludes computer science, technical and creative disciplines and disadvantages young people who are confined to taking a limited range of subjects with no direct connection to the skills they need for our industrial future?
While this paper purports to be about equality of opportunity the illusion starts to shatter here. The ambition to develop a high performing technical education system such as in Germany or Norway is to be applauded, but this is proposed as it ‘will benefit in particular the half of our young people who do not do A-levels or go to university, and those parts of the country where more people take a technical track’. This is the same rhetoric and thinking that leads schools to send their ‘best students’ to the University talk and ‘the rest’ to the session on apprenticeships.
It is that fundamental snobbishness about technical and professional education that must be addressed if we are to raise productivity. A Swiss or German family would cheer their daughter as she starts her apprenticeship leading to an excellent career while a British one would lament her choice not to incur £45,000 of debt to go to University.
Presumably young people in those areas (code for poorer parts of the North) will welcome the opportunity to attend one of the new Institutes of Technology when they are 18, so they can acquire the digital skills they weren’t able to learn in school because they were confined to studying seven academic subjects.
Employers consistently tell us that they favour ‘attitude over aptitude’ when recruiting young people. All evidence suggests that our failure to embed workplace skills and experience within the curriculum leaves our most disadvantaged youngsters with little to offer prospective employers except a limited number of low-grade qualifications.
Edge recently published the first wave of results from a longitudinal study of learners in vocational education which we commissioned with our partners at City and Guilds from the Institute of Employment Research at the University of Warwick. Well over half (57 per cent) said they wanted more information from employers; the evidence suggests that students opted for less specialised subjects because they are not well-informed of the options available. Conversely, apprentices benefitting from guidance from employers were much clearer about their career pathways, presumably into the technical professions which the Government is keen to encourage more young people to pursue.
It makes no sense to press young people into studying a narrow range of academic subjects at an earlier age and have an expectation that their aspirations will change at 18 towards a technical career, or that they will have the technical and creative background to achieve them if they do.
I believe the option of a 14-19 phase of education which includes the study of the practical and technical skills, which the Government rightly identify as being critical to the UK economy, is the only tangible resolution to addressing, not just the oft-quoted ‘skills gap’, but ensuring equality of opportunity for all young people regardless of geographic location or background.
Edge looks forward to feeding into the Green Paper consultation. This is an opportunity to confound the prevailing premise that an academic pathway confers a greater status than a ‘technical’ route. Until then we will continue to fail so many ambitious and capable young people and waste the talent we need to fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambitions for our future economy.
Alice Barnard is Chief Executive of Edge