The OECD’s 2017 Skills Outlook report was published this week. It argued that the world has entered a new stage of globalisation in which countries’ capacity to compete in global markets depends on the willingness of governments to invest in the skills and education of their young people and adults and on the quality and level of the education and training provided. It should be read with concern by policymakers and practitioners from all parts of the education sector – everyone, in short, in a position to influence educational outcomes and strategy. For the UK, the message is clear: only by reversing the recent direction of thinking about policy and investing both in the skills of adults and in the provision of a wider, less rigid curriculum can we hope to remain internationally competitive in this brave, and potentially quite ruthless, new world of ‘global value chains’ and increased labour market volatility.
The report uses the language of economic growth, productivity and skills for employment so familiar from the grinding utilitarianism of recent UK education policy. But it arrives at a very different place: one where people matter more than qualifications and competitiveness emerges not from a narrow focus on employability but from the implementation of a wider curriculum which values so-called soft skills such as communication, self-organisation and, critically, a readiness to continue learning throughout life, alongside strong cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, problem-solving) and more job-specific, routine skills. I hope education policy-makers in the UK will be open to the possibility that, for quite some time now, they have been headed in the wrong direction.
The position of the UK, as described in the report, is mixed. The UK was ranked ninth out of 28 countries for the proportion of 25- to 64-year-olds in education and training – ahead of the likes of Germany and France but behind Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. However, the report also notes that the ‘skills characteristics’ of skilled worked ‘struggle to meet the requirements of the technologically advanced sectors’. These skills characteristics, the report says, needed to ‘better align’ with ‘industries’ skills requirements to maintain or deepen specialisation in these industries’. This kind of specialisation is key to participation in what the OECD terms ‘global value chains’ – in which workers from different countries ‘contribute to the design, production, marketing and sales of the same product’. The report suggests a link between increased participation in global value chains and increases in productivity. To spread such productivity gains across the economy, the report says, all firms, including small firms, need workers with a mix of skills, including cognitive and soft skills.
Productivity has, of course, been a major issue for the UK economy for years. It seems a lifetime ago that then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne dubbed the UK’s low productivity the main economic challenge of this parliament. Two years on, Osborne has stood down as a Member of Parliament and is editing the Evening Standard, the UK is heading out of the European Union and a new Prime Minister has called another General Election, urging voters to strengthen her hand in a negotiation which looks increasingly likely to lead to a hard Brexit. In this incredibly febrile and fast-changing environment, one thing has not changed, however: productivity remains a key challenge for the United Kingdom, perhaps the key challenge when it comes to achieving a prosperous future for the UK. It is well-known that the UK has a long-standing and growing productivity gap with other western economies. The UK’s Office for National Statistics’ most recent estimate (2014) found the UK’s productivity (output per hour) to be 36 percentage points behind that of Germany.
Intelligent investment in education and skills is key both to improving productivity and ensuring global competitiveness and to the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals and communities (there is an argument from social justice every bit as compelling as the economic argument). But in far too many cases, and for far too long, ministers have failed to deliver anything like the step change required. For much of the education sector, and for further education, in particular, a culture of profound policy instability has been established by successive governments. Meanwhile, ministers have invested heavily in poorly judged policy interventions, implemented with scant regard to evidence or research, while reducing expenditure where it has been most needed, particularly on adult skills and education. Despite two decades of relentless policy focus on FE and skills, the UK continues to perform poorly in terms of literacy and numeracy skills, while, as the report shows, failing to supply the skills demanded in technologically advanced sectors. The UK has for some time been dependent on the supply of skilled individuals, most from Europe, to plug some of the gaps in the skills of its population. With Brexit looming, the UK is going to have to rely much more heavily on homegrown talent and this should prompt a major rethink of priorities in education.
Adult participation in education, which the government should be prioritising in an ageing society in which 90 per cent of the 2025 workforce is already employed, has been in steep decline. The adult skills budget has borne the brunt of cuts to further education, falling by 40 per cent since 2010, while part-time student numbers have collapsed by 56 per cent in just five years – an unsurprising outcome of huge fee increases and the offer of loans to groups known to be debt averse. At the same time, the adult curriculum has narrowed, focusing ever more rigidly on a very limited understanding of the skills required for employment. The government has been incredibly slow in recognising the growing importance of lifelong learning and the skills and talent of its own people. It remains to be seen whether the resurgence of interest in lifelong learning amounts to anything more than a few lonely straws in the wind.
This is a terribly depressing picture but an unsurprising one. For some time now, our political class has seemed perversely indifferent to the political and economic reality in which it finds itself. UK politics has been conducted in a bubble in which concocted fears prompt fake outrage and dominate policy discourse, while real specters loom unnoticed on every side. The government’s decision to reject the Lords HE Bill amendment to remove students from the net migration target is one of many recent policy interventions which reflect this. Likewise, the appalling and unwarranted decision to prioritise the creation of a new generation of grammar schools, which will further reduce opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged and ensure that more of our best talents go unfulfilled, reinstating a system that saw many thousands of children branded as failures at age 11. A recent study in Kent showed that grammars ‘understate the true academic abilities’ of poorer children. This, again, is not a surprising finding given that selection is not intended to promote social mobility – it is about ensuring that privilege is passed on and the poor know their place and stay in it.
All of this is evidence of a government not only impervious to evidence, but indifferent to the real needs of people struggling to keep their lives and families together – people who want not more selection and competition but the guarantee of a good education for their children no matter where they live or how much they earn. This is not a fantasy – it is a reality for many advanced countries around the world (the report gives some examples). Yet the UK government, which could attempt to legislate for the good of all, prefers to see most state schools, including very many excellent ones, struggle for survival, while throwing money at pet projects which benefit only a minority. We are further than ever from the sort of fairly funded, genuinely coherent national education system we need.
It is evident that a change of direction is needed but there is little prospect of one, at least in the short- or medium-term. Even if a future government came to power with a different approach to the current (and, in all likelihood, next) one and a genuine commitment to fair access, equality of opportunity and lifelong learning for all, it would find it challenging to replace the infrastructure of adult education and civic society which this government and its predecessor have done so recklessly dismantled. The waste of human potential, now accepted by most mainstream politicians as inevitable, is appalling and wrong. It is wrong because it does not have to be this way. We could do things differently, we could be the sort of society which values everyone equally and which offers the chance of a decent education to everyone, irrespective of background. The fact that we don’t and have no intention of doing so is not only an indictment of our political class and culture, it is also evidence that we are failing to nourish, care for or fully value what the OECD rightly identifies as our most important asset: our people.
Investment in people’s education is where this starts. We need more of it and we need to do it more intelligently, taking seriously the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. As the OECD’s report makes clear, investing in people and their skills has a direct pay-off in terms of economic and social outcomes, and is the key factor in supporting countries’ success in global markets. It is also indicative of a decent and civilized society. Low wages and long working hours are no recipe for economic or civic renewal, certainly not if we want a fair, flourishing and vibrant democracy in which a person’s future is not determined by the circumstances of their birth. My worry is that we are no longer prepared to aim that high.