Alice Barnard is Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation – an independent education charity dedicated to raising the status of technical and professional education.
On the day the Conservative Party published its 2017 election manifesto, a short article by the Director General of the Institute of Directors was published in the Times (£). He made a plea for politicians to think about the future skills needs of the country beyond the election campaign.
While democratic participation can only be a good thing, election policies inevitably tend to be developed with a view to the next five years, with a promise of delivery within the next Parliament. No party offers the prospect of legislation which won’t net results for a decade.
Clearly, education sits at the top table of policy areas, and has been subject to various ideologically-driven changes over the years. The debates over teaching methods, assessment, the value of private education, academic versus vocational routes and so on, continue almost cyclically. All parties pledge to ‘raise standards’, but offer little vision of the long-term, and what we might expect our education system to deliver and for what purpose.
While many of our European neighbours have adapted their education systems to meet labour market needs, the UK remains stubbornly wedded to the curriculum devised in 1904 by Robert Morant, and based on that offered by English public schools at the time. The academic mix of English, maths, science, geography, history and a foreign language remains the same today, now enshrined in the current EBacc (though ‘drawing’ is now notably absent).
Turn of the century Britain was prosperous, with a strong manufacturing and mining base and a flourishing economy in trade, finance and shipping. Today, industries like textiles, coal and steel have long gone. Aerospace and the pharmaceutical industry are two of the biggest contributors to the UK economy while the service sector accounts for 78 per cent of GDP. According to the British Fashion Council, the fashion industry contributes £26 billion to the economy.
Given the stark difference between the two economic landscape,s and the skills of the workforce needed to support it, it seems strange that we feed young people in schools the same subject staples. The EBacc is an early 20th century curriculum being imposed in a 21st century classroom.
Looking to the longer term, current debates over education policy are rather academic when we consider that 65 per cent of children now attending primary school will work in jobs which currently don’t exist. How do we educate and prepare young people for professions, roles and technologies in the future?
No-one would argue that core subjects such as English, maths and science are not fundamental to education, but our modern digital economy also demands another three Rs – Reasoning, Resilience and Readiness for Work.
The Bank of England suggests that up to 15 million jobs in the UK are at risk from automation. The UK’s departure from the European Union is likely to exacerbate the current skills shortage. Already, business leaders have expressed concern about the impact on their ability to recruit staff with the skills they need.
Our post-Brexit economy will increase demand for engineers, designers and creatives, sectors already worth more than £500bn – 29 per cent of the overall economy. The UK requires an extra 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017 alone – a gap costing the economy around £63 million per year in lost income. We need a significant expansion in the level of digital skills, but we also need the skills in technical and creative sectors, the very subjects absent from the current EBacc.
The last Government issued a consultation on the implementation of a target for 90 per cent of students to be entered for the EBacc, but 18 months later the results have still not been published. Instead, the Conservative manifesto includes a lower target of 75 per cent, despite less than 25 per cent of those taking the EBacc last year (just 40 per cent) actually achieving it.
Apart from setting students up to fail, the EBacc is having a wider impact. Design and Technology GCSE entries have dropped by ten per cent and art and design entries by five per cent. The effect – illustrated by the Department for Education’s (DfE) publication of its teacher training allocations recently– is a decline in the numbers of teacher in creative subjects. We are reducing our ability to educate and train technicians and creatives.
The EBacc also impacts negatively on social mobility. Lower attaining students – who typically will come from the most disadvantaged households – are only entered for six to seven GCSEs, so the EBacc will be their whole curriculum. Ironically, they are the most at risk of disengagement, and the Social Mobility Commission recognised that a purely academic diet is likely to increase that risk.
Students taking nine to ten GCSEs are able to include a technical or creative subject, but all young people need – and deserve – the opportunity to develop those skills and aptitudes. The current EBacc compels thousands of young people to follow a narrow and entirely academic curriculum over a century old, even as our need for skills in areas such as construction and healthcare increases. We compromise our young people’s futures and our nation’s future prosperity.
It needn’t be so. By creating some flexibility in the curriculum, students can still benefit from a strong academic core of subjects, whilst having the opportunity to develop the skills they need for the future. Elsewhere, for example in Austria, students study a balanced programme of academic and technical education with no disparity of status between the two. Technical specialisms are linked to local skills needs and businesses value skilled labour as part of its supply chain.
Our workplaces are changing radically and our education system needs to change radically and swiftly to match it. We need a diverse landscape of schools and colleges, matched to the needs of young people and the future economy.
If we are to thrive, we need to ensure that 100 per cent of young people are ready for the jobs of the future, either directly after school, through an apprenticeship or after higher education. The target is irrelevant. A broader curriculum mix is imperative.