Neil Bates is Chair of Trustees at the Edge Foundation

It was with raised eyebrows that I heard the Prime Minister’s (@BorisJohnson) recent Conservative Party (@Conservatives) Conference speech. It was not the usual policy-lite rhetoric or lack of direction that surprised me, but the conflicted messaging. “We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity,” he said, before proceeding to pass the buck for the current supply chain crisis by blaming a lack of business investment.

Frankly, after decades of failure to fund our skills system and a plethora of successive reviews from Leitch to Foster to Sainsbury, the chickens are coming home to roost. Successive governments have been obsessed with numerical targets rather than strategic targeting of key sectors. The current skills crisis – and it’s no exaggeration to call it that – has been a long time brewing. This is not about Covid or even Brexit, but a long-term failure to invest in the skills, education and careers opportunities that British people – especially young people – need to thrive.

The Edge Foundation’s regular Skills Shortage Bulletins have been highlighting this problem for some time. Evidence suggests that skills shortages have been steadily growing. The Department for Education’s own Employer Skills Survey from 2019 provides a vital pre-Covid baseline. It highlights that nearly a quarter of all vacancies were skills shortage based – a two-percentage-point increase from 2017.

Meanwhile, skills investment is declining. The Learning and Work Institute found that government spending on adult learning in England reduced by 47% in the decade from 2009-10 to 2018-19. Employers also spend comparably less in this area than their international counterparts. Combined with continuing labour market changes, and the joint impacts of Covid and Brexit, it’s time for our education system to prioritise the skills that employers are asking for.

The PM may take aim at poor industry investment for the current logistics crisis but business is right to hit back. The OECD has stated that one of the biggest risks to national education systems today is that traditional ways of educating are losing currency and relevance. In short, education systems are not adapting fast enough to the needs of a dynamic economy. We cannot lay the blame at the feet of industry.

Ostensibly, both the PM and the Chancellor seem more vocal about skills than ever before. This is good news. Speaking to Andrew Marr at the party conference, The PM said he wanted to help people into better paid, better-skilled jobs. He would do this through Kickstart, the lifetime skills guarantee and via massive investment in Further Education (FE).

However, Tony Danker, CBI Director-General, says the Prime Minister’s vision needs “to be backed up by action on skills, on investment and on productivity.” If the PM and the Chancellor are serious, they must match their rhetoric with sensible investment that brings meaningful change rather than the piecemeal approach that we’re currently seeing. As former principal of Prospects College of Advanced Technology, I can vouch firsthand for what some healthy, targeted investment would mean to FE colleges and learners around the country.

But we need fresh thinking, too. On top of a new curriculum and pedagogical approaches, this means more high-quality technical education, not less. That may sound blindingly obvious, yet the Department for Education is currently planning to streamline Level 3 qualifications, which will include scrapping BTECs. If nothing else in my 30 years as an FE College leader, I learned that the greater the diversity of qualifications available to young people, the better. Scrapping BTECs in favour of an as-yet untested approach is a terrible idea.

One of our best hopes for unlocking change across the system is assessment reform. Currently, exams dominate the entire education infrastructure. They influence both what is taught and how. While the PM was deriding the logistics industry at the conference, Edge hosted a fringe discussion: Assessment Time for a Rethink? Robert Halfon MP and Flick Drummond MP highlighted the need for a broader curriculum that prepares students for the world of work. Meanwhile, Eton College and the Bohunt Education Trust provided practical examples of how to better evidence young people’s skills and talents, such as careers-connected, project-based learning to improve engagement while fostering fundamental skills like problem-solving.

At the event, Edge’s Chief Executive, Alice Barnard, also encouraged the audience to move the debate from talking to action by challenging the government to reform the education system. I concur; we must hold the government to account and look for the best ways to assess young people, rather than defaulting to the current, homogeneous system that fails to measure anything beyond a narrow definition of success.

With the right investment and ideas, Boris Johnson’s glorious vision of a highly-skilled, highly-waged and highly-productive economy can become a reality. But we cannot get by on bluster alone. The need for change is urgent. And the time to act is now.

Neil Bates is Chair of Trustees at the Edge Foundation, the independent education charity dedicated to making education relevant for the 21st century

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