The Future of Skills and Education?

It is only six weeks since I last wrote about skills on this blog. Not, you might think, a very long time for change to happen. And yet much has. A new monarch (probably the least important for the theme of this post), a new PM, a new Chancellor, and a new direction of travel which, currently, is far from finding favour in the markets. It is also the Conference season; we wait to see quite what turmoil the Conservative Conference unleashes, following Labour’s rather successful one. (We will never know what the LibDems would have done, due to their need to cancel.)

All the signs from the Government seem to be worrying when it comes to investment in Jo Public, infrastructure and innovation. There is still no science minister and, interesting though it is that the ONS has significantly uplifted its analysis of investment in R+D (to put more weight on that done by SMEs), so that it is now much closer to HMRC’s calculations, this change in their estimate does not resolve the productivity puzzle. Productivity (output per hour) has been near to flat since the 2008 financial crash, leaving the economy in a very fragile state made worse by the consequences of Brexit and the pandemic.

Economic growth and increased productivity require (amongst other things) skilled workers, with the right skills in the right place. It requires both that school and university leavers have acquired relevant skills and that they know what career trajectories are open to them. It also requires that adults, who trained decades ago, are able to reskill or upskill to be able to take on the jobs that are available to them now, which may be very different from those accessible to them when they left school or college. In order for all these strands to be working, there needs to be investment in appropriate courses and facilities.

Briefly, it looked as if the Lifelong Learning Entitlement might offer hope to make it easier for people to drop in and out of education according to their needs and the requirements of their local job market. However, although this has been much talked about, the Treasury never signed off on it and, with all the present noises about ‘cuts’, it seems quite possible they never will. Yet the need for workers to be able to update their skills has never been more urgent.

Under the last Labour government, a variety of schemes were introduced with the intent of reducing inequality, starting from birth. Sure Start aimed at ensuring that children from disadvantaged families did not immediately fall behind their middle class peers before they’d even started school. The Education Maintenance Allowance, was a payment to poorer students to incentivise them to stay at school post GCSE. Both these schemes still operate in parts of the UK, but not in England, despite evidence being gathered to show that both were cost-effective, although in the long term rather than the short.

The UK is now in a situation where teacher training has been upended by changes in the accreditation process, and there is a 40% shortfall in recruitment of trainee teachers starting this autumn. The situation is much worse for secondary school teachers than for primary. Given that teacher retention of trained teachers is also a massive problem, there will be many schools with significant shortages of teachers in the years ahead. This has long been a problem with Physics, but it would seem it is going to become prevalent across all disciplines. Anecdote tells of language teachers being asked to teach maths, because there are few pupils wanting to study languages coupled with a dearth of maths teachers. A lack of teachers can only mean large class sizes and restriction of subject choice, neither boding well for generations of students and their future careers. Teachers having to teach outside their comfort zone and qualifications are less likely to inspire the young.

For those students who do not acquire good qualifications at Level 2 (GCSE), their future career options are limited. More opportunities for them to improve their qualifications in later years need to be on offer, and this requires investment in the colleges which will provide such courses as well as financial support for the individual, so that they can afford to take up the opportunities that are available to them. The LLE would have provided such support, but it was due to be a loan, and I always wondered how many individuals, perhaps already with families to support, would have felt able to take on the financial liability. A grant would be much more attractive (as well as expensive). But perhaps we will never find out if the LLE could have worked, if the Treasury sits on its approval.

Instead, what we’ve already learned from this government is that the extremely wealthy will get tax cuts, and the cuts the rest of the population are likely to feel seem set to be on welfare and infrastructure. As yet there has been no talk of investment into the crumbling infrastructure of hospitals, schools, FE Colleges and transport; or investment in the people who are needed to run these. The words uttered by numerous politicians that they aspire for the UK to be a global science superpower will be empty rhetoric without the investment to make this possible. Association with the EU over science seems a dream that will never come to fruition, and so-called Plan B, ill-defined though it may have been, looks a potential target for more of these cuts we are hearing about. Science will not thrive under these circumstances. We will lose scientists, engineers and technicians, we will lose innovation opportunities and productivity will not receive the fillip it needs. We are damaging our future as well as our present, by not investing in education and skills at an appropriate level. These are tough times.

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