From education to employment

Back to the Future in Friday’s Retrospective with Daniel Wallis

This week saw the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) call for a conference between leading academics and researchers to look at Britain’s skills for the future. Part of the conference plans to invite delegates to “step into the year 2020 and look back to see the things that needed to have been achieved”. It will also show four films that show four possible futures and the skills focus required for each one.

Presumably one of the films will concentrate on a future world run by intelligent apes, or maybe even creepily-calm computers that just won”t let you in, but this does raise the question of where Britain’s future lies. The future has already been identified as a strange place we won”t be able to recognize, leading to various “scares” over what is happening now: we aren”t reducing carbon emissions enough, we aren”t producing energy efficiently enough, we”re not ready for the Chinese”¦

There has been much recent talk about Britain’s poor skills level, the way that we are lagging behind the rest of Europe and with China and India, mocked for centuries, now emerging as the hot favourites for skills-based economies. It is little wonder that few people want to look too far into the future; it looks like it’s going to be a hair-raising time.

Safety First

We seem to have a problem with addressing issues now in order to safeguard the future. Scientists have warned of the need for measures to reduce climate change, recycle materials and use renewable energy for years, but the response has always been sluggish and reluctant. This may be a by-product of modern-life in the West, where the individual is King and everyone else is quite frankly irrelevant. A combination of overbearing capitalist priorities and bureaucratically-burdened administration makes change a difficult thing to achieve, so we shy away from it; the whole country remains resolutely apathetic even as its own shores are washed away by the changing climate.

The skills deficit is an interesting point. Many countries would kill to have as extensive an education system as Britain’s and in many countries, particularly in the rapidly developing world, they have achieved far more with far less. A recent television documentary on a school in Uganda showed students literally breaking into school to be learning; teachers have to patrol the playground fence to make sure non-registered non-fee-paying children do not sneak in to receive lessons, all this in one of the most war-ravaged and poor countries in the world. Here in Britain, kids are more likely to be breaking out of school than clamouring to get in, and once blissfully free of the legal restraints of pre-16 education many are loath to re-enter it.

Feeling Shackled?

What is the reason or this? Perhaps Britain has had too cushy a life, too concerned with consumption and enjoying the fruits of material capitalism to progress economically, like the Eloi in HG Well’s The Time Machine, who have been idle so long they are useless. Or maybe it is an apathy born out of consistent control; as a nation, Britain has never really had the incentive to drive ahead since the imperialist days of 19th century conquest.

Witness the work and skills ethic that transformed the economies of Germany and Japan after the Second World War, and the impetus that over-populated “developing” countries like India and China have gained in recent years; these are not the achievements on nations that sit back with faded memories of 40 year old world cup wins or dust gathering British inventions. It seems that, as with climate change and other environmental issues, the apathy towards education comes as a result of not seeing any evident danger right now.

We still classify India and china as “developing” or “third world”, when these tags are merely smug assumptions of some kind of material superiority that the West has over them. Until the rupee is stronger than the pound, and until the meltwater-swollen Thames laps at the feet of Downing St, we will continue to live blinkered, too distracted by our daily dose of career, crime and Big Brother to notice or even care. The panicked predictions of academics do not move us, as a) to act on them would involve actual effort, and b) God forbid, we may have to feel responsible in some way, and if there’s one thing the modern Westerner hates, it’s responsibility. Everyone else’s car adds to global warming, but not mine.

“I Didn”t Do It”¦”

The old unquestioned belief in Britain’s global superiority can be seen in the country’s poor records in language learning; while students in the continent can expect to grow up with at least two, sometimes three fluent languages in their belt, those in Britain can rely on the trusty technique of just shouting English louder to be understood, or just assuming that “everyone over there will speak it anyway”.

I recall a friend in Barcelona attempting to ask for directions without knowing a word of Spanish:

“Excuse me, do you know where this is?”


“Ok”¦wheere ees thees ho-tell?”

In spite of all this, the future isn”t all grim for Britain. We have all the engine parts to make this the Porsche of the skills world, we just need the time, effort and motivation to put it all together, and maybe some decent weather to show it off, for a change. In a way, the grisly predictions of Britain’s skill-less future may actually, in the long run, prove better for Britain, as it may take nothing short of a health-scare to motivate the country to progress again; once the skills deficit actually starts to hurt, the country will shake off its apathy and pull on those old jogging shorts, change its diet and quit smoking, and, maybe, even have its own kids sneaking under fences to sit in lessons.

Daniel Wallis

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