Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

Last week, headlines ran ‘Corbyn and Greening clash on skills gap’ after Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and Education Secretary, Justine Greening, each addressed the British Chambers of Commerce on the subject of ‘skills’.

Google the term ‘skills gap’ and in less than a minute you’ll net 429,000 results – that’s almost as many engineers as India produces each year, compared to the 100,000 engineers who will qualify in the UK.

Both politicians called for support from business – Greening says she wants firms to back ‘a skills revolution’ and support the new ‘T-levels’, while Corbyn wants more tangible backing in the form of higher corporation tax to provide revenue for investment.

Timing, it is said, is everything and these two political signals landed on the same day as Edge published its latest policy report, Our plan for 14-19 Education, which generated more modest media coverage.

The document makes the case for a coherent, unified and holistic phase of education from 14-19 to ensure young people have not just academic qualifications, but the creative and technical skills which our 21st digital economy demands and the ‘soft skills’ which employers tell us they value above grades or qualifications.

It includes an eight-point plan designed to dismantle ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ divide, make all young people realise the value of their talents, help them fulfil their potential and meet the UK’s future skills needs in the context of the digital revolution and Brexit.

Briefly these include broadening the curriculum; making learning relevant to the workplace; scrap GCSEs at 16 in favour of a ‘stage not age’ approach; reintroduce Young Apprenticeships at 14; redirect the £450m from the abolished Connexions service to schools (give 20% to the Treasure towards austerity and that leaves £106k a year for every school) to establish employer engagement and careers IAG programmes; give teachers more support, training and experience in the workplace outside of school; better collaboration between schools, colleges, universities and employers to allow students to move between the institutions that will serve them best; and finally, focusing on genuine outcomes by using destination measures as the indicator of success for schools and colleges.

The report is based on the best available evidence gathered from across the world and includes case studies of initiatives and projects from Northern Ireland, the United States and Jersey as well as examples of best practice at home. What they all have in common is the recognition that not only does one size not fit all, but that by enabling everyone to reach their fullest potential, not only individuals, but communities, local economies and our national prosperity benefits.

So did either Greening or Corbyn speak to the issues? Well, Greening calls for greater partnership between government, education and businesses, but is not explicit how those relationships might manifest. Edge advocates the linking of schools and local employers helping to develop employer engagement, support careers advice and enable work experience programmes, but the determination of the government to impose the narrow and wholly academic EBacc on schools and their students creates a contradiction.

There is no room in the curriculum for employer-led projects or putting learning into the context of the workplace; for many students there will be no room for creative or technical subjects like Design and Technology or art. Yet Greening seems to believe that the introduction of T-levels will encourage young people to have an epiphany when they reach 16 and decide that pursuing a career in the arts or engineering or digital – of which they have had no experience – is an attractive option.

Corbyn recognises there should be ‘a widening of the school curriculum’ and the need to ‘encourage the creativity in every child’, but while investment is critical, and especially for technical subjects which by their nature are more resource-heavy, funding needs to be directed strategically.

Alleviating debt for students in higher education may ensure some young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not excluded from the opportunity to go to university, but it doesn’t address the complexities of an education system which stifles social mobility from the day a child first steps into the classroom.

In contrast to the quick fix solutions and fanfare announcements which politicians frequently rely on, Edge’s plan builds on the best of what’s gone before with a series of radical measures which add up to a 10 year programme to transform our education system and, most importantly, the outcomes and life chances for all young people.

The Edge report did not generate the media coverage of Greening and Corby, but this is a document designed to change policy, not chase headlines.

Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

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