It was unfortunate that the Industrial Strategy White Paper was released on the same day as the Royal Engagement became public. It may not have been intended to be published on a ‘good day to bury bad news’, but it was very noticeable that as far as BBC Radio 4 News was concerned, it went from being top of the headlines at 8am – before it was published – to not being mentioned at all in the headlines by 6pm when everything was about Harry and Meghan. Despite the BBC’s sense of priorities, it is not difficult to work out which is going to have more long-term economic impact within the UK; you can only sell so many commemorative mugs.
At least, I have to hope that the White Paper will have impact on the UK’s economy and, to be more specific, on its productivity. Things are not looking good on that front. By comparison with our EU neighbours we are faltering badly ever since the 2008 crash. Many changes are required in our infrastructure, training, support for businesses (be they small or large) as well as our research base if this is to be turned around. That the Government looks willing to get more interventionist on this front, which has been a no-go area for many years, demonstrates how worried they are. Brexit is most certainly not going to improve the situation as we lose ground on being able to export the few things we do still manufacture here and when we cannot rely on easy exchange of labour at all levels in the job market.
Amongst the 255 pages of not very dense text accompanied by some pretty graphics, lurk some important recommendations about school education in the STEM subjects, as well as some warm words aimed at resurrecting some meaningful careers advice for school children (I wrote previously about the inauspicious and dismissive views of previous Secretary of State Michael Gove on this important matter). Given the clearly-identified shortage of skilled workers for the digital economy, these plans are important for our future. Since in the document there is the subtext that much of our low productivity can be attributed to businesses not ‘upskilling’, moving with the interconnected world we all live in in the way they handle orders or automate their production processes, training everyone better (and starting with schoolchildren) has to be an important strand of any strategy in improving our productivity, even if only one amongst many.
The two headline actions I want to highlight – beyond the welcome comments about careers advice – relate to additional money aimed directly at the STEM agenda. Firstly, there is to be a £600 premium per student who takes maths or further maths at AS/A level or post-16 Core maths. Since the recent move towards funding per ‘course’ – which meant, for those studying A levels, a set of three – further maths, often taken as a fourth subject, has been hard hit. In the school year starting this past September I personally knew of two very disappointed 16 year olds, in different parts of the country, who had been denied access to further maths teaching because of funding issues. One – a budding computer scientist – managed to find their way into a class (the parents were so worried they were exploring options of a private tutor had their fight with the school not led to a successful outcome); the other did not. No doubt up and down the country many fell into that same category of finding their path blocked.
Whatever direction a career may take a young adult in, strong quantitative skills (including statistics) really, really matter. It is clear that many struggle with some of the basic concepts and others may be competent but not wish to commit to an A level in the subject. They may be willing to progress a little further with Core Maths, so the funding for this subject too is important. Maybe fewer children would struggle if primary schools were better equipped to install the basics right from arrival, so additional money to support primary school maths teaching is also extremely welcome. An extra £27M has been promised to support expansion of teachers working with the Mastery in Maths Programme, to bring it to a further 11,000 primary (and secondary) schools over the next 5 years. But for the purely STEM sectors the further maths A level funding is a big step forward.
Digital literacy is another area where our schools have not kept up with the times, in part for entirely understandable reasons: a lack of teachers (and a previous over-emphasis on low grade ICT skills). It is encouraging to see the White Paper promise funding to the tune of £84M over 5 years to improve the teaching of computing. Amongst the plans are the
‘upskilling of 8000 computer science teachers – enough for one in every secondary school.’
This goal is very much in line with the Royal Society’s recent report After the reboot: computing education in UK schools, which called for government to tackle the undersupply of teachers of computing, noting that during 2012-17 only 68% of the recruitment target in this area was met. For teachers of physics, similar schemes – and money – designed to address low numbers entering the profession have not met with success. Recruits just don’t come forward. One has to hope that the story has a happier ending for computing.
Another key recommendation in the Royal Society report, indeed its first highlighted recommendation, was to work towards redressing the gender imbalance in the field. This too is identified in the White Paper as a primary focus. Again, this is not a new issue and organisations such as Stemettes have a good track record in stimulating interest amongst girls. However, with horror stories endlessly coming out of the tech industries, it may take work way beyond the UK education sector to turn this around. Think of ‘that’ awful Google memo or death threats against Anita Sarkeesian when she analysed the portrayal of women in video games, and it isn’t perhaps so surprising that taking a computer qualification in order to enter the tech industry may not appeal to all girls (of course, computing and digital skills in general are useful way beyond the tech industry, as the White Paper makes very clear, but that message may easily get overridden).
The Industrial Strategy is about far more than education, but without an appropriately educated pipeline many of its aims cannot be met. I wrote about the importance of our population’s ‘absorptive capacity’ (in advance of the White Paper) in terms of being able to make good use of the promised uplift in R+D spend in general, and the White Paper echoes this in the importance it places on this issue. I will leave it to the others who will, and the many who already have, commented on the importance of ‘place’ when we think about how to regenerate parts of the country not currently thriving; or the importance of ‘clean growth’ as we in the UK and far beyond attempt to transition to a low carbon economy. There is much to commend in the White Paper – but, as with the supply of computing teachers and far beyond – does it really have the means to deliver? Time will tell.