James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Creating the skills to deliver the Government’s modern industrial strategy.
Theresa May’s speech last week outlined her approach to a “modern industrial strategy”. She was frank about some of Britain’s weaknesses in education: “We have gold-standard universities, but we are not strong enough in STEM subjects, and our technical education isn’t good enough.”
This is a serious problem. If we are to pour money into emerging technologies including Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Biotechnology – and to realise the potential of May’s vision – we need a workforce that can deliver at scale.
But we have a problem at every level of education that will hinder our ability to do this. At the top, we still have too few maths, science and engineering graduates. Furthermore, too many highly able pupils drop all Maths at 16. In the middle, we have almost completely lost our skilled technicians. And at the lower end, a very high proportion of students are still failing to get even a C in Maths GCSE.
This is bad for the people involved and bad for Britain. As Theresa May noted, we are often poor at commercialising technology. Doing this requires scale, which in turn means we need large numbers of qualified people.
What can we do? As I’ve written before, the Government must refocus its apprenticeship program from low level courses, with almost non-existent wage premiums, to higher level, technical apprenticeships of the kind commonplace in Germany.
It needs to rapidly implement the Sainsbury review on technical education, as outlined in the new Further Education Bill. Lord Sainsbury has been trying to improve technical education for a long time and was one of the first to recognise the hole left when the former polytechnics became generalised universities.
But the Government also needs to become serious about supply. In the constant push to increase the proportion of students going to university, institutions have become more and more generalised – trying to do everything but, often, doing nothing really well.
Meanwhile the private market has been skewed for years by government incentives – offering short, lower quality courses, and is poorly equipped to deliver more serious apprenticeships. The FE sector is laughably underfunded compared with schools or higher education.
The Government has paid lip service to this problem by promising an “area-based review” of colleges, with the aim of creating specialist institutions. But as every college will likely admit, this risks being a toothless exercise which will probably result in no change.
The Government needs to learn from schools – where the Free School programme instituted by Michael Gove introduced very high quality, often specialist institutions such as King’s College Maths School, which was founded by the university and designed to teach Maths to bright sixth formers from ordinary backgrounds. By providing support, a route, and capital funding, Free Schools have improved the quality of education and introduced innovation into the system. Technical education needs the same – specialist 16+ technical colleges, deliberately linked to May’s industrial strategy. If we are going to fund the development of technologies in, say, Birmingham, we need to make sure that there is training to match.