Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
We can only welcome ‘Education, Education, Education’ being back at the top of the political agenda, with fresh thinking bringing the government’s long-overdue attention to practical, as well as academic, education, and the need for training to be linked to actual jobs.
I am reminded of a recent Channel 4 interview with a young man in Cleethorpes, who trained as a car mechanic but couldn’t find a job and, after a year of unemployment, had a zero hours contract in another type of business, wasting his qualifications and destroying his confidence. (Surely, one option would have been for the college which taught him his trade to set up a car maintenance business, creating jobs and helping to boost the local economy.)
According to the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education, chaired by Lord Sainsbury and published last year, it is more than 100 years since failures in the technical sector were first identified, yet, despite what is described as ‘tinkering’, the shortcomings have remained unresolved. Consequently, businesses struggle to recruit people with the right technical skills, leading to critical shortages in some industries, and leaving nearly 400,000 16-18 year olds unemployed.
Labour’s destructive ‘realignment’ of educational provision in the 1950s and 1960s, in a bid for equality of opportunity, failed to recognise that some people are simply cleverer than others, whether in the sciences or sport, and we should take pride in their achievements. Unfortunately, however, the changes left many of the brightest frustrated, as teachers focused on those who struggled instead of nurturing all levels of ability, leading to a spiral of decline in achievement over ensuing decades. A decline exacerbated when education was subsumed into Children’s Services, with leadership given to social workers instead of educators, allowing complacency amongst some of the top education authorities (including Suffolk) which were subsequently stunned to find themselves poorly rated by Ofsted.
Attempts to address the problems prompted a greater emphasis on university, rather than encouraging technically based learning, reinforcing a somewhat snobbish disparity in perceived value between university and technical qualifications. This is foolhardy, when the report notes research indicating that over 1,300 university courses don’t lead to quality employment, ‘being divorced from the occupations they should be preparing students for’, whilst allowing them to accrue debt.
Responding to one of the report’s recommendations, the government created the independent Institute for Apprenticeships in 2016. Led by a panel of industry specialists, with a broad remit to agree a common framework for technical education and skills to meet demand, and to establish single, nationally recognised standards in English and Maths, it will also standardise certificates for each technical qualification. (For example, at present, plumbing offers a choice of 33 qualifications, making it difficult for both students and employers to select the best.)
The Prime Minister’s announcement of a ‘revolution in technical education’ with £170m funding aims for parity in status between planned new institutes of technology and traditional universities, extending the same opportunities and respect for all graduates by streamlining provision and replacing low-quality courses. Designed to ensure young people develop the skills they need for the high paid, high skilled jobs of the future – whatever and wherever they are – it promises a UCAS style admissions system and maintenance loans.
Driving this programme will be the Industrial Strategy green paper, to create growth hubs, with local government told to draw up plans to become centres of excellence for key industries, linking schools and colleges with their biggest employers, whilst Ministers commit to investing in digital, energy, construction and transport infrastructure. A high priority will be quality structured work placements, as well as opportunities to upgrade skills and qualifications through continued professional development (CPD).
Many companies have long supported such engagement, building relationships with specific schools, often supported by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) through their own Skills and Economic Development Strategies, designed to enable young people to make the right decisions for their future employability.
A pioneer of this approach is technology investor, Sherry Coutu, who developed a website, Founders4Schools, five years ago to send business speakers into schools. According to recent research by her ScaleUp Institute, 80 per cent of growing businesses believe they could grow faster if they found the workers they need. In response to the skills crisis, she is now launching a free app, initially in Cambridge, London and Manchester; about 1,500 businesses and 500 students have already signed up to Workfinder enabling schoolchildren to find work experience and apply for apprenticeships.
The launch of a £60 million Schools Social Mobility Fund in 12 opportunity areas, combined with an emphasis on specialist Maths schools, further reinforces the government’s commitment to developing world-class education for all young people. Reinvigorating Britain’s status as an innovative market leader in key industries, with enviable (home-grown) talent, as well as enhancing our ability to attract the best qualified people from across the globe, can only benefit our international trading ambitions in the wake of Brexit.
However, all these initiatives must be grasped urgently, with careful planning to capitalise on the opportunities presented by becoming centres of excellence. Given that county elections are likely to divert councillors’ attention for the next four months, it would be sensible to invite Local Enterprise Partnerships to take the lead with business and further education colleges, as well as schools (including primaries).
From the most casual conversations with anyone in business and education across our communities, it is clear that there is considerable enthusiasm for taking these ideas forward, but also scepticism that anything will be done, other than months of talk, ‘consultation’ and report writing. Devolution for Suffolk (with Norfolk) turned out to be a damp squib, so those in power locally cannot afford another disappointment to further undermine ambitions for major economic development.
It’s time to prove the sceptics wrong.