James Scales is Head of Education at the Centre for Social Justice.
The skills shortage in our labour market is one of the gravest threats to our country’s prosperity. Supercharged by technological innovation, the world economy is redefining the contours of economic success and we must find a secure place in this new terrain – both to enable social mobility and to thrive more generally.
Invariably, our most disadvantaged pupils have the most to gain from addressing our skills deficit. These individuals perform significantly worse in GCSE English and Mathematics than their better–off peers and, all too often, they later find themselves trapped in low-skill, low-wage jobs. And poor access to careers advice harms this cohort of individuals the most because they have far less social capital to cushion them. We know that education is one of the most effective routes out of poverty, but to catalyse meaningful change it must prepare children for the world of work.
The Government recently announced that it would spend £16 million over two years to boost the quality of post-16 maths teaching and prompt higher uptake of the subject.
This should be warmly welcomed. In a more technological labour market, employees need a firmer grasp on numbers and the ability to understand data. This does not mean we all need to be maths experts, but it does mean we need to be more numerate. In most other advanced economies, it is normal for pupils to study maths until they are 18.
But our skills headache does not end there. Basic skills are necessary to do most jobs well – and to gain entry onto good academic and technical courses. Yet more than a quarter (around nine million) of all working aged adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills. England lags the OECD average for numeracy by some margin. In 2016, under two thirds of pupils achieved A*-C in GCSE English, while the figure for maths dropped by 2.3 percentage points. And employers routinely highlight problems with basic skills among school leavers.
There should also be a more seamless interface between the specific skills we possess and those that employers need. In 2015, nearly a third of workers did not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they were doing. The UK is particularly short on digital skills and the health, software development and cyber security sectors, among others, report problems hiring suitable candidates.
Sound technical education could help plug our skills gap, but it is a pale shadow of its prestigious, more coherent and better nourished academic cousin. There are too many low-level technical qualifications that have little currency in the labour market. There is not enough cross-pollination between the education sector and employers. And careers advice must be dramatically improved so that pupils know what their options are and how to realise their goals – the number of young people who received careers advice or work experience halved between 1997 and 2007, and continued to fall in the last ten years.
By introducing T-levels, prioritising apprenticeships and allowing specialist free schools such as the Kings College London Mathematics School to thrive, the Government has indicated that it is serious about weaving more robust skills into our education system. In the years ahead, it must build on this to ensure that our education system is fit for purpose.