Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

The 1980s are back; shoulder pads, headbands, ruffle-neck blouses. It’s a well-rehearsed aphorism that fashions repeatedly ‘come round again’, and so if often feels with education policy.

Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum – or possibly which part of the country you lived in at the time - the 1980s was a decade of either greed and the disintegration of communities or entrepreneurialism and liberating deregulation.

Certainly many of the education reforms of that period have left a legacy. The 1988 Education Reform Act as a forerunner of free schools and academies; recent changes to GCSEs echoing the end of CSEs and O levels (although in 2013 Michael Gove made the very post-modern suggestion of re-branding GCSEs as O levels); the cuts to higher education funding 30 years ago preparing the ground for the growing marketisation of universities.

However, perhaps the perennial issue, more repetitive than a Duran Duran lyric, is how technical or vocational education fits into our tripartite system. In those days, just 14 per cent of young people would go on to higher education, but now that around half do so, we have a new moniker for the remainder, the ‘forgotten 50%’.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson nailed his egalitarian colours firmly to the DfE mast last month at the Conservative Party conference, promising eight new institutes of technology (IoT) focused on equipping young people who don’t go to university with high-quality skills and technical qualifications in science, technology and engineering. This on top of the additional funding for FE and sixth-form colleges.

While Williamson says, ‘We’ve made great strides for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in terms of their educational attainment.’ He wants to make sure that, ‘children, from whatever background they come from, have an opportunity to succeed in a life in a way that sometimes people can only dream of.’

He compares the new IoTs to the polytechnics that existed until the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act; he calls them ‘great institutions’ and indeed they were. Over 80 per cent of the young people did not go to university in the 80s – the ‘forgotten 80%’? – trained for careers, acquired professional qualifications, degrees and industry experience at polytechnics and colleges.

Seven years ago, then Labour Party leader Ed Miliband made a similar pledge to Williamson’s at his party conference, to improve vocational qualifications for the ‘forgotten 50%’; he proposed introducing a Tech Bac to help ‘the teenagers between 14 and 18 who are in need of good vocational education to keep them from dead-end jobs.’

I suggest that the flaw at the heart of both Williamson and Miliband’s reform aspirations is the notion that we are a nation divided into academically bright exam-passers and the less intellectually astute, but technically capable – the ‘forgotten 50%’.

The assumption is that if you are in the former camp you will become a doctor, a barrister, a scientist or Prime Minister. If you are in the latter you will have equally valuable skills which will be employed as a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic or an engineer or indeed any profession which doesn’t require a degree.

This may have been a workable paradigm in the 1980s, but, rather like leg-warmers, it is an obsolete and futile fixation now. Edge’s own research and endless reports from the CBI and professional bodies from all sectors, cite a lack of core skills – creativity, problem-solving, communication and the rest – as the biggest challenge to productivity.

I don’t hear any businesses saying they need more young people with degrees, in fact, it’s often the contrary. Many employers recognise the value of apprentices and benefits of them learning within the corporate culture. Others, like Penguin Random House, use a matrix to assess candidates which doesn’t assume a degree equals the requisite workplace skills.

It is not just the ‘forgotten 50%’ that need ‘skills’. In fact if you consider that one in four graduates are working in non-graduate jobs, you might want to spare a thought for the ‘forgotten 12.5%.’ There is no dichotomy between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, or ‘academic’ or ‘technical’ achievement and in our digital age they are increasingly blurred.

As I’m indulging in 1980s nostalgia, a scene from the BBC1 comedy, Yes, Prime Minister, seems fitting. The protagonist, hapless Jim Hacker, laments to his Cabinet Secretary the lack of rigour in education, ‘The children aren’t learning how to do the sums.’

‘The local authorities might argue they don’t need to, they have pocket calculators’, replies Sir Humphrey. ‘But they need to know how to do it!’ protests Hacker. ‘OK, what’s 3947 divided by 73?’

Hacker pauses. ‘I’d need a pencil and paper to do that.’ ‘Or a pocket calculator Prime Minister?’

Technology, how we communicate, who we’re able to communicate with, how our economy works, the socio-political landscape of the world is unrecognisable from when I last wore a ra ra skirt, but our policy makers seem resolutely stuck in the past.

Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

Edge are hosting Skill Up North: can localism bridge the skills gap? at Liverpool Town Hall on 12 November. Drinks reception from 6pm followed by keynote speech from Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and a panel discussion. Free tickets still available here.

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