Britain has a long way to go in order to create an education and skills system fit for the modern world. And if that was urgent before the EU referendum, now we are leaving it is critical that we prepare the foundations for a new settlement.
As the Fabians have highlighted, globalisation, changing demographics and shifts in global demand are radically altering the nature of work. Governments must keep up with these changes. But a lack of investment in adult skills and lifelong learning by our government means that we are falling behind other developed countries.
The roots of the problem go deep. Last month the Education Policy Institute published findings which highlighted the gaps in post-16 education. Entitled Educating for our Economic Future, it raises some important questions about how we equip our workforce to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Efforts to provide technical education are being made. For example, the apprenticeships levy is a step in the right direction, but it has been criticised for being inflexible and confusing to small business, many of whom would have otherwise seen apprenticeships as adding real value to their business. Meanwhile other cities – and worse still our towns – do not reap the full benefits. We should also be concerned by recent data showing a strong decline of almost 60 per cent in the take-up of apprenticeships.
Yet we have known for a long time that post-secondary education is skewed towards academic routes. More can be done to create pathways and incentives for apprenticeships as alternatives to university.
These pathways, like undertaking a degree, must leave young people with a range of options, rather than committing them to one avenue at too early an age. Many value keeping options open: only 15 per cent of 16-18 year olds are undertaking full-time technical education designed for entry occupations. Instead it is far more popular to take a general qualification.
These pathways must also address employability challenges. An employer skills survey reported challenges in finding people who can manage time and prioritise tasks – basic skills in the workplace. Also lacking were basic customer handling skills. Evidence points towards a growing importance of developing non-cognitive skills for employment. While work experience placements in school and college help, the proportion of 16 to 17-year-olds in full time education and in employment has almost halved in the past 20 years. So more must be done to embed workplace skills pre and post 16. With Brexit closing off a source of skilled workers from the EU, it is of growing importance that we address skills gaps among young people here.
But we know that readiness for employment shouldn’t end when a young person fully enters the labour market. To hold our own amongst existing and emerging global economies, we must keep workers skills fresh and relevant throughout their career. We must better understand the virtues in the embedding lifelong learning throughout the course of people’s lives.
For a start, our workforce is ageing. Today, one in four people in our workforce are over 50. According to the Chartered Institute for Professional Development, by 2030, the number of people in the UK aged 65 and over will have increased by 50 per cent. The number of people over the age of 85 will have doubled. Longer lives mean longer careers. And to compete globally, these careers must be fuelled by continuous training and education.
Despite us knowing this, a below average number of workers in England (21 per cent) attend vocational training courses when compared to the EU as a whole (38 per cent).
One explanation for this poor uptake is the nature of the labour market here. Our country has some of the least strict employment laws in Europe. The consequence is a dynamic labour market, with high job turnover. The downside of this is that it is often difficult to focus training and education for workers.
Another problem is that the government has not invested anywhere near the right level of funding into adult skills and lifelong learning. As the Fabians’ recent report on lifelong learning has shown, we are moving in the wrong direction, with a decline in 25 to 64-year-olds participating in education and training. A concerted attack on adult skills funding since 2010 has undone much of the progress made under the last Labour government.
Adult education in the UK is too heavily skewed towards health and social care. The government’s industrial strategy is supposed to be part of the solution to some of these shortcomings. But the strategy falls short in resolving regional variations in skills, as well as jobs. The focus is also too narrowly concerned with the digital and construction sectors. Countries outperforming us on lifelong learning (see Singapore and Germany as two examples) are focusing investment across a diverse range of sectors, from engineering and manufacturing, to construction and services – as well as digital.
To educate for our economic future we must ready young people for the challenges of the labour market across a range of sectors. We must also train and re-train those already in employment. This requires the right investment, but importantly we need a broad focus on the sectors needed to boost our economy, as well as providing for our public services.