Published:

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Last month, the Chancellor delivered a historic budget that cemented ambitions for a skills revolution.

I wish the new team leading the Department for Education every bit of luck. They have taken on some of the most profoundly important challenges as we begin to build back better.

‘Schools’ and ‘skills’ must be the two most important words in the Government’s vocabulary as we transform our education system. They are the key to delivering our mission of creating an economy that works for everyone.

Of course, we must retain our focus on education recovery. The pandemic has had an apocalyptic effect on the life chances of our young people. However, even before our schools closed their doors, there were signs that the education system was failing to support those most in need. Disadvantaged pupils were 18.4 months behind their better-off peers and the progress made on closing this attainment gap had come to a faltering halt.

But educational catch-up is not all. In order to meet our skills ambitions, education must adequately prepare pupils for the world of work. It is estimated that skills shortages in the UK are costing us £6.3 billion every year because previous governments have not given skills the priority they deserve. New Ministers have inherited an education system that is at odds with the demands of our modern economy.

Whenever I speak to employers and business leaders in my constituency, they say they want individuals with the knowledge required to do the job, but they also need to have strong skills, be good communicators, excellent problem-solvers and strong team players.

From Harlow to Huddersfield, local employers get the importance of skills. In towns like mine, there’s a strong vocational and skills culture: my constituents are proud of apprenticeships and skills, and what’s more, employers attach immense value on skills beyond academic qualifications. The Government’s own Employer Skills Survey reveals that academic qualifications are just one small part of today’s recruitment process. Employers across the country place the most value on technical, practical and so-called ‘soft’ skills.

Despite the name, these skills aren’t soft at all. Pupils need skills like resilience, financial education, oracy and teamwork to secure jobs and thrive in employment. In a recent survey of the UK labour market, looking at the data from 21 million job adverts, communication, planning and organisation skills were in the greatest demand from employers. In an increasingly digital world where AI is king, these skills will become even more important.

The keystone to education must be about providing young people with a ladder of opportunity so that they can go on to gain fulfilling employment, job security and prosperity for themselves and their families. Despite the fundamental link between education and employment, we currently give these skills scant attention in our education system.

But it does not have to be like this. Some schools are bucking the trend and blending knowledge with practical skills.

XP is an Outstanding-rated school in Doncaster. They recognise that knowledge and skills depend upon each other so they have tightly integrated project-based learning with an academically-rigorous curriculum. Recently, pupils embarked on a research project to better understand the relationship between Doncaster and the history of its rail industry. At the end, they published a book which has become the third highest-selling local book in the area.

School 21 is another Outstanding school which empowers young people to use their voice, developing oracy skills that employers see as invaluable. They give pupils the chance to give mini TED talks in front of large audiences to develop their confidence and public speaking skills. School 21 also offers pupils real-world learning placements where young people gain professional communication skills through work experience.

These schools are incredible examples of what is possible if schools focus their efforts on cultivating both the skills and knowledge that pupils need. However, they are remarkable exceptions, and not the rule. We need to do more to transform the education system to value skills as highly as knowledge.

First, the Government must double down our efforts to close the attainment gap, focusing additional support with laser precision to reach those most in need. To do this, the Government should review whether pupil premium funding is up to the task. The Education Select Committee heard from experts who said that the support base for pupil premium is too broad. We should reform pupil premium so that it concentrates on pupils in persistent poverty.

Second, we must reform the post-16 curriculum. All children deserve high expectations and a curriculum which stretches them. However, we must make sure that when we’re stretching pupils, it’s always with an eye on securing positive post-16 destinations, rather than idolising a narrow set of academic subjects.

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has led to a narrowing of the curriculum. Subjects like Design & Technology (D&T) and Computer Science are being squeezed out, with entrances for D&T GCSEs down by 65 per cent from 2010. The EBacc needs to be reformed to create a parity of esteem for vocational subjects alongside a rigorous academic offer.

Finally, we must take a renewed look at the assessment system. Our current system was created in a world where children left school at 16 and the skills they needed for life were very different. I propose that we move to a new system where children have the option at aged 18 to complete an International Baccalaureate, which focuses in equal measure on academic knowledge and skills.

The combination of skills and knowledge is not an unattainable ideal. In fact, it is the international standard. Over 150 countries and 5,000 schools already offer the International Baccalaureate. This qualification allows pupils to study a range of academic subjects alongside a skills-based project of their choice. If we want our young people to compete for the jobs of tomorrow, we need a similarly broad baccalaureate that obliterates the false dichotomy between vocational and academic achievement that has unfairly constrained our young people for decades.

The outgoing Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, advised his successors to push forward with a knowledge-based curriculum. In his article published a couple of months ago, he argued that our education system faced a battle between his traditionalist world view, and the ideology of progressives.

I have enormous respect for Gibb. During his time as Minster, he was a relentless champion of phonics, and through his hard work, the proportion of pupils passing Year 1 of phonics screening checks increased from 58 to 82 per cent in 2019.

While I retain a lot of admiration for his legacy at the Department for Education, I believe his article did not fully address the problems the education system is facing.

Nobody will benefit if the Conservative Party wastes our energy on fighting a straw man. We live in a world where we can, and should, equip young people with both knowledge and skills. If we neglect either one, we are setting our children up to fail.

Re-setting our education system to grapple with the demands of the modern economy will not lead to a worsening of school standards – it is the only way that we can achieve our skills ambition and level-up education for those who need it the most.

We promised to deliver a skills revolution. Now we need to make this promise a reality.