Last week yet another warning bell sounded that the UK could be facing a serious skills shortage. A Universities UK report found that a fifth of students in strategic subjects ? those deemed vital on the grounds of wealth creation such as engineering and physics ? are from abroad, whilst UK students account for only 29 percent of postgraduates in such subjects. The renewal of skilled disciplines underpins the UK’s world class research base, and it is feared that once foreign students return home, we could be left with a serious shortfall in specialists.
The report’s findings add to a host of indicators which suggest the UK is simply not equipping itself with the workforce it needs to maintain a globally-competitive economy. A 2006 City of London study revealed that recruiters in the Square Mile are increasingly looking to employ foreign graduates as they are found to be more mature, skilled, business aware and work-oriented than their British counterparts. A similar survey by the CBI and KPMG found 61 percent of employers had concerns over staff with poor maths and English, and it concluded that the shortage of skilled workers was now the biggest barrier to business in London, overtaking transport problems for the first time.
It is little wonder. One in six working adults do not have the literacy skills expected of an eleven year old, 17 million have difficulty with numbers, six million do not have any qualifications and more than one in six young people leave school unable to read, write or add up properly. The government-commissioned Leitch Report into the skills shortage is frank: it warns that the UK ‘is on track to achieve undistinguished mediocrity’ and that the British economy could miss out on an extra £80bn over the next thirty years from not having a better skilled workforce.
A British education used to be internationally coveted, so why are we facing this crisis? I believe the problem is twofold. By phasing out selection, our schools now favour equality over excellence; and by concentrating on education provision in the early years of our lives, we are failing to encourage flexibility through lifelong learning.
The education debate in Britain has been schizophrenic. On the one hand it is bogged down by arguments on grammar schools and the assault on selective institutions which pursue excellence. On the other hand, we constantly lament the dumbing down of academia ? ‘Mickey Mouse’ university courses, grade inflation, children leaving school unable to properly read and write. We acknowledge the education system’s failings but are too frightened to take necessary action for fear of dragging up issues of class. Just as the immigration debate has been suppressed by accusations of racism, so the education debate has been stifled by outdated ideas of social mobility.
It is time for Britain to be honest with itself on the crucial matters of the day. We can perform all sorts of tricks to make it seem that our education system is up to scratch but we can do nothing to change the competition. I have been to India, China, Bangladesh and Malaysia to observe their education systems at first hand. Their institutions may not yet have the clout and experience of those in the West, but their students’ thirst for learning is enviable and admirable. Not for them the softly, softly approach. These countries know that achievement comes from hard work, application and enthusiasm. China and India are now training more engineers, computer scientists and graduates than the United States and Europe combined. If we are to stand a chance of competing, we cannot be complacent.
Selection has become almost taboo in Britain, inevitably connected as it is to the political hot potato of grammar schools. When the London School of Economics reported last year that one in four secondary schools used some form of selection, the government was eager to assure the public that it would rid us of the plague. Fairer admissions procedures would be strictly enforced to stamp out ‘covert selection’ and interviews would be banned, the Education Secretary announced.
But why are we afraid of selection? It is apparent that the comprehensive experiment has neither improved academic standards nor increased social mobility, and tinkering further with admissions procedures is unlikely to change that. In Northern Ireland, where selection has been retained, 42 percent of university entrants are from less privileged backgrounds ? in England the figure stands at 28 percent ? and 10 percent more pupils achieve five or more A* to C grades. Study upon study has shown that social mobility has actually decreased over the past forty years. Of The Times’ top 500 schools, only 24 were comprehensive, and as grammar schools have died out, the proportion of state school pupils at Oxford has fallen. As the government’s own education guru, Andrew Adonis, summarises, ‘the comprehensive revolution, tragically, destroyed much of the excellent without improving the rest.’
The fundamental flaw in the thinking of the comprehensive system’s proponents was to believe that the advantages that come from being middle class could be negated by abolishing grammar schools. Quite the opposite has occurred. Middle class families now buy up property around the best schools, creating impoverished pockets outside good catchment areas which are devoid of opportunity and provide no easy way out for bright and able children. It has been the ultimate betrayal to those children and the ultimate deception to the public by left wing politicians to portray selection in education as going hand in hand with an entrenchment of the class system.
As the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, so ludicrously put it, ‘If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that they (the middle classes) want to go to it.’ In other words, the problem with the British education system is that people want their children to go to good schools. This inescapable fact cannot be legislated away. Pupils should be given equal opportunities ? no doubt ? but we cannot create equality of talent, skill, intelligence or aptitude, no matter how hard the government tries. To push for egalitarianism will lead to the economic and social decline of this country.
Reforming education in primary and secondary schools is crucial, but alone it may not be enough. As the population ages, many people may now have to embrace five, even six, careers in a working life that could extend well into their seventies. As the Leitch report rightly identified, ‘for developed countries that cannot compete on natural resources and low labour costs, success demands a more service-led economy and high value-added industry. In the twenty first century, our natural resource is our people.’
Education must not be the preserve of the young, it must become a lifelong pursuit. Currently many find it difficult to return to education ? it is not always financially viable, courses may not be flexible enough to fit around jobs and it is not clear what new skills would be most attractive to employers. Employers, on the other hand, are finding that new recruits are not always equipped with the soft skills that they require after leaving higher education such as the ability to work in a team and communicate successfully.
For too long we have divided education into an academic high road and a vocational low road. It must be recognised that our economy requires a mix of skills and talents which our current system fails to cater for. This must change, and as Lord Leitch has recommended, individual learning accounts and greater emphasis on retraining and skills updating could help to change the status quo on adult education.
Equipping ourselves for the 21st Century
If we are not adaptable, our work force will not be able to survive in a world that demands high value-added, high-resolution outcomes. The biggest risk posed by globalisation is that it will leave many people in its wake. But we can do much to reduce that risk by discussing the challenges and opportunities. Vocational training has for far too long been a Cinderella item on the education and skills agenda. If we couple a revival in such training for adults and young people with an increase in selective, state-funded schools which are open to all parts of the community, we will be able to compete successfully well into the future.
But education and training must not simply regarded as either the Government’s domain or as something on which they have all the answers. Employers, who are the ones most likely to benefit from a skilled workforce, must provide robust training and encourage their employees to adapt. They must also forge stronger links with higher education institutions to ensure that our education system is producing what our economy needs.
This is a contemporary debate for a contemporary challenge. We must not be dissuaded from pursuing excellence and competition in our schools and people must not be put off vocational training by intellectual snobbery. It is vital that our education system is more flexible and responds to the needs of the market. If we fail in this task, we risk losing not only our international reputation but the lifeblood of our economy ? Britain’s vast human capital.