A new report, published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Pearson, urges the Government to put the future economy first, as it reforms the schools and post-16 education landscape.
Educating for our Economic Future is the second report by an Independent Advisory Group consisting of prominent business and education leaders and chaired by leading academic Professor Sir Roy Anderson. It follows the influential 2014 report Making Education Work, which saw many of its recommendations adopted by the Government.
With growing uncertainty around the country’s supply of skilled workers following the EU referendum, and with economic challenges such as low productivity, stagnating wages, and intergenerational inequality, the UK is at a critical juncture in terms of meeting its future labour market needs.
This second report of the Independent Advisory Group assesses England’s progress in equipping young people with the right skills for the future – focusing on literacy and numeracy, digital capabilities and employability skills. It presents recommendations on reforming educational pathways from school up until the world of work.
You can download the full report here.
The Independent Advisory Group calls on the Government to:
- Ensure new T Level reforms fit with wider educational reforms, and do not close off options of further study and long-term career development with a simplistic bifurcation between academic and technical pathways
- Refocus away from a single, crude apprenticeships target – replacing it with a wider set of success criteria that focus on quality and benefits for both learners and employers.
- Continue progress in equipping young people for the future with core literacy and numeracy, and ensure the development of digital and financial knowledge in young people is also fit for the future.
- Establish mechanisms to ensure long-term school and college curriculum decisions reflect independent advice and meet the full range of society’s interests in education.
The report finds that the current economic climate presents a number of serious skills challenges:
- Following the EU referendum, the future supply of skilled workers is less certain now than ever. This adds to several economic challenges facing the UK, such as stagnating productivity and wages, and considerable demographic pressures.
- Without substantial increases in productivity, wages and housing supply, this creates serious risks to social mobility for the young.
- In this climate, jobs requiring intermediate, technical skills appear the most vulnerable to shortages. This presents opportunities for those able to adjust their career paths and take advantage of high-skill jobs – yet it also risks leaving many trapped in low-level jobs.
- Present-day fiscal constraints are also hindering the teaching profession. Teachers face high workloads and little time for development – with the profession increasingly unattractive to the best graduates.
With both the academic and technical education pathways, whilst the Post-16 Plan is a promising development, if not designed right there is a risk that young people are being forced into choosing among a range of narrow options at too young an age:
- England is unique in the developed world in requiring high-levels of subject specialisation at 16. Forcing learners to specialise so early on may be denying young people opportunities – and depriving the country of work-relevant skills.
- The new 15 technical routes and ‘T-Levels’, together with a cross-party consensus on the importance of apprenticeships, are to be welcomed, with their ‘common core’ of English, maths, and digital skills vital given England’s deficiency in basic skills.
- However, it is crucial that young people are not permanently confined to narrow technical pathways. The new system must allow for specialised knowledge, without closing off options to progress to a wide range of occupations or further study.
- Huge challenges remain for those who are not ready to enter advanced study. Effective application of the transition year, which could include a traineeship, will be key – especially for vulnerable groups, such as low-achieving young men.
- The Government’s expansion of apprenticeships is also welcome – yet apprenticeships must not merely be used to validate older workers’ skills. Standards should address specific skill shortages, though must also be sufficiently broad and deep for long-term career development.
- Post-secondary education is unevenly skewed towards academic pathways. In 2015/6, almost 400,000 learners acquired an English undergraduate degree – compared to just 14,000 level 4 publicly funded awards in further education. A balance must be struck between 3 year academic degrees and other forms of post-secondary education.
Important non-cognitive, ‘soft’ skills, and employability are vital, but are lacking in many young people:
- The available evidence does not suggest that the Government should mandate specific approaches to teaching these traits in schools, particularly in general contexts.
- The immediate priority should be to ensure that the school and college accountability systems do not prevent young people from being offered a broad-based curriculum with opportunities for extra-curricular and work-based activities.
- Young people’s experiences of the National Citizen Service have been positive, but the Government should explore whether value for money could be improved, and whether locally-led programmes could be better used.
Disruption through digitalisation and automation is changing the nature of work – with England facing enormous skills challenges in reaping the benefits for productivity:
- Around half of adults in England have basic or no ICT skills – higher than the OECD average. Younger people fare better, but proficiency with social media should not be mistaken for ‘digital literacy’ and work-based digital skills.
- The school system has a key role to play in fostering digital skills alongside maths and literacy skills. The recently-introduced teaching of coding, for example, is welcome – yet many teachers lack confidence in delivering the curriculum. There is considerable potential for the role of technology to enhance pupils’ learning and to reduce teacher workload.
- The UK’s adults have relatively poor levels of financial literacy, and young people’s proficiency is strongly linked with parental influences. Schools play an important role in financial literacy development through their teaching of maths competencies. Further integration of financial concepts into curriculum is therefore essential.
Career paths today are far more fluid, and subject to change than in the past:
- A commitment to lifelong learning must therefore sit at the heart of any credible skills strategy. Evidence points to a clear link between lifelong learning and national prosperity, reduced inequality and improvements in wellbeing.
- Access to career development and training remains a huge problem – with those set to benefit the most likely to be missing out.
Full Independent Advisory Group Recommendations
Recommendations for urgent action:
1) The Post-16 Skills Plan offers the prospect of clearer, improved pathways for 16-year-olds seeking a route to skilled employment, via T levels or apprenticeships. However, with the alternative A level pathway providing a focused curriculum designed mainly for entry to undergraduate degrees, there is a risk that the new landscape represents a bifurcation into two narrow paths that fail to appeal to those motivated by a more ‘career-based’ education, developing knowledge of particular industries whilst leaving a range of options open for technical training or academic study later. Meeting such demand effectively could provide more logical routes to level 4 and 5 training, and help broaden the range of provision in higher education to include more professional, technical and shorter courses. Combined with its promised review of tertiary education, the Government should develop a coherent vision for post-16 education that takes into account the full range of pathways sought by young people, avoids undue focus on access to three-year undergraduate degrees at the expense of other qualifications, and links effectively with the key stage 4 curriculum. T levels should be designed to fit with this wider vision.
2) A cross-party consensus for expanding apprenticeships is a welcome development. However, given the risks of not achieving effective delivery, the Government should avoid focusing on narrow numerical targets and develop broader measures of success that consider the quality of training and its value to employers and learners. Being able to assert with evidence that these routes are beneficial will be a vital part of improving their reputation with learners and their parents. Given the dependence of apprentices on the sustainability of their employer’s business for their programme of training, it should consider how to ensure learners can move between apprenticeships and classroom-based technical routes, and whether transparent and portable qualifications should play a role in apprenticeship standards to enable them to market their knowledge more widely.
3) The Government should review the current approach to supporting low-achieving, disengaged students, and those with special educational needs, to ensure it takes into account wider changes in local and national policy and the increasingly limited resources of local authorities responsible for education participation. It should consider the large body of experience and evidence generated by recent interventions including the Youth Contract and the introduction of Traineeships. The transition year proposed as part of the Post-16 Skills Plan should be designed as part of a fully-formed three-year journey, to ensure young people are equipped with the right skills to progress into further education and to re-engage with English and maths over a sustained period
4) The Government should publish a comprehensive careers strategy. It should commit to ensuring the new educational landscape is complemented with objective careers advice from earlier than key stage 4, alongside more fairly-distributed employer engagement in schools, building on the progress of the new Careers and Enterprise Company. It should carefully review the implications for careers education of efforts to increase the involvement of universities in running schools and examine a broader range of options to trigger improvements.
5) The Government should retain the ambition for everyone to attain at least a level 2 in English and maths by 19. To support this, it should develop Functional Skills into a high quality, relevant and recognised qualification whose success is measured on progression rates, employment outcomes and equipping young people with basic skills. It should also monitor whether students taking apprenticeships are progressing well enough and review the suitability of this route for those lacking basic literacy and numeracy. The 15 new technical routes could allow for higher contextualisation of maths to help ensure retention and student engagement with the subject.
6) The Government should launch a high-profile national campaign to promote its funding for free training and tuition for any adult wanting to study English and maths up to and including GCSE level, and should proactively help adults in finding the most appropriate and nearest help.
7) The Department for Education should promote the consideration of transferable skills to support career development, but it should ensure this is integrated sensibly in teacher training as part of evidence-based, subject-specific approaches. Working with Ofsted, it should prioritise ensuring that the school and college accountability system supports provision of a sufficiently broad curriculum that offers children a range of experiences, before advocating specific interventions to affect non-cognitive traits or the use of scarce curriculum time for the teaching of generic skills.
8) The Government should develop a fresh and comprehensive strategy, considering early years, school, further and higher education settings, to improve the working conditions, development, professionalism, recruitment and particularly the retention of teachers and other education staff.
9) The Government should assess the extent to which children are being introduced to financial concepts and knowledge in key stage 2, and monitor how national curriculum requirements in secondary schools are being implemented in practice. It should reflect on the EEF’s emerging evidence on the support given to schools in delivering the national curriculum requirements for financial literacy. Schools should be expected to cover the current student loan system, and the financial aspects of the apprenticeship system in England, as part of the citizenship curriculum or careers education.
Recommendations for longer term policy development:
10) The Government should develop formal mechanisms, for instance appointing an independent panel, to ensure that curriculum and assessment policy decisions for school and further education are made in ways that reflect the full range of society’s interests and the need for careful implementation.
11) The Government should explore the development of personal learning accounts or other ways to give people better access to training to upskill or change careers in later life, including the provision of maintenance support for a wider range of technical courses beyond those delivered through Institutes of Technology.
12) The recent expansion of the National Citizen Service has broadened the experience of many young people and appears to have been well-received. The government should heed the NAO’s recent warnings to ensure further expansion does not compromise effectiveness. It should consider how the introduction of a Passport for Life might support development of a wider set of locally-tailored interventions – linked with school, college and local authority approaches – with more scope for innovation, subject to safeguards for the quality of provision.
13) Computer use is embedded in school life already, but beyond introducing the computing curriculum and teaching how to develop programmes and coding – which has been a positive step – the Government should continue to seek to raise standards for digital skills in schools, colleges and universities. Familiarity with modern software should be augmented with more workplace-focused skills.
14) The Government needs to develop plans, alongside industry and commerce, to address the changes to employment caused by developments in robotics and automation. Through the development of apprenticeship standards, employers should collaborate at national level to identify gaps in digital skills levels and help establish appropriate minimum standards. Education providers at all levels should ensure their offers are aligned to identified needs, that their workforces can deliver these programmes, and that they appeal to young people.
15) Better use of digital technology could improve pupil outcomes and reduce teacher workload. Following the closure of Becta, the Government should monitor whether schools and multi-academy trusts have adequate support in making cost-effective use of the likely expansion in digital resources, and ensure that teacher training establishes the right core digital capabilities. However, it should continue to work with the Education Endowment Foundation to focus on trialling new approaches and disseminating evidence to schools before encouraging the adoption of any particular technological solutions.