Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a local councillor in Suffolk.
In the Budget, the Chancellor announced incentives to develop the maths education programme, with £40 million to train teachers and £600 for each pupil aged 16-18 studying maths to A level. He also announced a National Centre for Computing, to offer distance learning as a way of raising skill levels for those in employment, and allocated £21 million for a new Tech Hub at Cambridge.
It is, however, disappointing that he didn’t specifically mention science.
Britain is a ‘science superpower’, according to George Freeman MP but, with Brexit looming amid ever more testy negotiations, there is a growing demand for raising skills levels. It isn’t widely known that the UK is already a centre for the Sciences, with multi-million pound investment, including new facilities linked to Oxbridge and London, already world leaders in life sciences, employing 235,000 with a turnover of £64 billion.
New science parks around Cambridge, including the Biomedical Campus employing 15,000, will be home to Astra Zeneca, which has relocated 2,000 staff, when it opens its new £500 million HQ next year, becoming the world’s largest oncology research centre. Other big names include Glaxo Smith Kline, Pfizer and Abcam, which is spending £16 million on a new HQ, and a range of start-ups, attracted by the best talent of PhD and post-doctoral researchers.
A report by Oxford Professor, Sir John Bell, released in September, set out plans to boost the drugs industry, drawing 2,000 more researchers to these clusters and establishing four new British companies, each valued at £20 billion within a decade. Further news announced £160 million of new investment and a range of incentives to help small businesses scale up.
In East Anglia, The Norwich Research Park for Science and Technology is a unique partnership between the University of East Anglia and the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital. Europe’s leading centre for food, health and the environment, with a 12,000-strong multi-disciplinary team and an average annual research spend of over £100 million. Home to the John Innes Centre and Sainsbury Laboratory, next year it welcomes the new Quadram Centre.
Yet Science, like Maths, is thought a ‘difficult’ subject, often taught badly, but offering endless fulfilling career opportunities, if only our young people are enabled and encouraged to embrace them. Businesses and Institutions should get into schools, talking to children about the work they do, arranging visits to appropriate factories and research facilities.
Listening to The Life Scientific on Radio 4, is an absolute revelation. Scientists across the various disciplines share their experiences and projects: what and who inspired them, sometimes to change course from one specialism to another. They explain their fascination and commitment to research and discovery, inventing remedies and solutions to often seemingly intractable problems; their creativity, humour and almost childlike enthusiasm makes one wish… if only I’d done something like that!
To encourage greater engagement, and focus the limited resources, local authorities – and Government – could designate specific schools, including primaries, in each region as Science Centres, ideally linked to the specialist maths schools (where are they?). This would include academies as well as state and private schools, which tend to place a higher emphasis on maths and the Sciences, offering scholarships for the best talent.
Identifying children with potential to meet the skills shortage from an early age, providing specialist learning and holiday courses supported by tailored grants would focus their ambition; grants could also follow these students through university, having a significant and immediate impact.
Such a strategy must include children from poorer areas, who would otherwise never have even heard of the opportunities in science, let alone any other profession. In a recent interview, the BBC’s Lord Hill recounted a meeting he had at Teesside University where a professor stated that ‘the age at which a young person in Middlesborough resigns themselves to the fact that they are never going to be able to do anything with their life is not 18, not 16, but nine.’ A truly shocking statistic and, as the world’s sixth largest economy, we should be ashamed.
Poorly promoted, a recently-launched partnership scheme, initiated by Lords Nash and Adonis, and supported by 80 councils, addresses some of these issues, with children from some of the most vulnerable families who otherwise risk going into care, being enrolled at top boarding schools, including Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Benendon.
Fees of up to £39,000 a year compare with the £100,000 cost of keeping a child in care for a year, representing excellent value for money in so many ways, and – we’re told – benefiting up to 1,000 children within the next five years. I certainly agree that this could be money well spent, but which councils are engaged in the programme, and how is it monitored?
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), about one third of the UK workforce is held back because of weak basic skills in literacy and numeracy, unchanged for generations, and lower than the OECD average. The number of 20 – 45 year olds achieving professional vocational qualifications is also poor when compared with other countries, presenting employers with a dilemma. Despite 2.5 million apprenticeships begun in the last seven years, with a further three million planned by 2020, there are still nearly 800,000 16-24 year olds not in education, employment or training, although about 40 per cent are looking for work.
But having low skills doesn’t necessarily make them suited to low-skilled jobs, there is the question of reliability and attitude, which employers are most concerned about, especially when businesses spend about £45 billion a year on training. EU staff are often over-qualified, but they have enthusiasm and a willingness to develop their skills, even in the most menial tasks.
Maths and Science are integral to qualifications for key professions facing shortages: Engineers, Construction workers, Teachers and Medics. By identifying shortages, local authorities and Government could target grants to appropriate students who are prepared to ‘sign up’ to working in the UK for, say, a minimum 10 years after graduation, rather than decamping to other countries.
The New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership has just published its Digital Skills Plan, the third in the Skills Board’s series, including Construction and Health & Social Care, addressing both demand and opportunity. Business and the public sector can learn from these documents.
We owe it to the younger generation to ensure they have the right skills, and the ability to adapt to change, but this can only happen if they know what careers could be open to them, and they have the teachers and social structures to inspire them.