It’s the people, stupid

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.



Taking a line for a walk

On 7 May 2015 the UK electorate voted in a majority government on a platform of more austerity and increased hardship for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, precipitating, among other things, Labour’s almost immediate resignation as a true party of opposition – convinced, seemingly, that it is only by endorsing the Tory fiction of its fiscal irresponsibility in office that Labour can restore the country’s faith in it as a party of, erm, fiscal responsibility. Like many other left-leaning voters, I feel trapped in a bad dream in which it is always 10pm on election night and that exit poll in replayed, over and over again, forever, to a soundtrack of Michael Gove endlessly congratulating himself.

Two things particularly struck me during the general election campaign. First, the narrow and impoverished nature of the debate and the utter failure of the mainstream media to do anything to dispel the statistical fog of claim and counterclaim or to take a step beyond the confining narrative established by the coalition in its first few months in office and enthusiastically taken up by its friends in the press. And second, the way fear – whether of economic ‘chaos’, a disgruntled business community or a minority Labour government controlled from Edinburgh – was endlessly and very effectively stoked, in the end trumping any sense of hope or solidarity. In politics, as in life, it is fear that prevents us taking creative chances, whether that is a leap of imagination or a leap of empathy and understanding.

Labour’s subsequent capitulation in the myth that it overspent in office and caused or (in a more nuanced spin for the economically better-informed) exacerbated the economic crisis (a capitulation with qualifications, I know, but who has time to read the qualifications?) could be said to make a very effective case for more political education. But it also, it seems to me, represents an implicit concession that the language of empathy, informed compassion and solidarity have little place in modern politics, and that only tough-guy posturing, usually in the face of imagined or invented demons (‘uncontrolled’ immigration, benefit cheats and Greek-style economic collapse are three of the most popular phantoms), can win over the electorate.

Politics, of course, is not the only area of life where empathy is in short supply. The hostile and at time callous language used by the media (and, indeed, by politicians) to describe asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants is another case in point, stereotyping and scapegoating migrants while overlooking their positive contribution and over-reporting the problems they create (it is telling that while people’s perceptions of the extent of these problems diverge ridiculously from reality, they are broadly in line with the priority given them by the parts of the media). Social media too, for all its virtues and possibilities, seems at times almost a test lab for every kind of meanness, closed-mindedness and spite, often in the guise of some sort of moral crusade; usually one fatally detached from any sense of human sympathy or fellow-feeling. As Adam Smith argued long ago, it is this sympathetic imaginative effort to put ourselves in other people’s shoes that is at the heart of morality and virtuous behaviour.

If, as Smith believed, the imagination is the faculty responsible not only for populating our moral world but also for the entire creative sphere of commerce and the arts and sciences, it is surely something we should cultivate. This was something strongly hinted at by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in an interesting interview on the Today programme in May. Productivity, Carney said, was the way forward for the UK economy, yet it was faltering because of under-investment and the disproportionate number of low-paid, low-productivity jobs created by the economy, prompting the Bank of England to downgrade its growth forecasts. Productivity, he went on, could be improved through investment in skills and innovation, empowering people at work, and more creativity. This reiterated points he was able to make at greater length in a speech about pay and productivity at the TUC congress last year. ‘Skills levels need to be raised continually,’ he said. ‘That is, of course, first and foremost about education. But crucially it also means access to lifelong learning, both on and off the job, available to all.’

What I particularly like about these comments is the link Carney makes between creativity, education, skills and productivity. We need a school curriculum that is geared to delivering the skills and resources young people need to thrive in the modern world, and that includes, critically, creativity, resilience and imagination, and, perhaps just as importantly, a willingness to think of themselves as learners throughout their lives. We also need a system of lifelong learning that unlocks people’s creativity later in life, when and where they need it. As John Dewey wrote, ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’. The alternative is a continued decline in productivity relative to our competitors and an economy characterised by poorly paid, low-skilled jobs and calcified patterns of inequality.

Carney’s remarks point to a great deal that is wrong about the government’s approach to education. This is in some ways typified by education secretary Nicky Morgan’s comment that studying an arts subject ‘holds pupils back for the rest of their lives’, but it is also evidenced in the government’s more general denigration of arts and culture in the curriculum, prompting the Warwick Commission last year to wonder why it is that ‘the English educational system is not focusing on the future needs of the cultural and creative industries and the broader needs for innovation and growth in the UK?’ Not only is the curriculum narrowing, with arts subjects steadily downgraded and excluded, but the pressures brought to bear on teachers and school leaders are making it increasingly difficult for schools to bring a creative ethos to teaching and learning. Morgan used her first public appearances following the general election to warn that ‘failing or coasting’ schools would have their head teachers removed and be forced to join an academy chain (though she failed to specify why this would help – for the very good reason that there is no evidence that it would). It is doubtful whether the threat of this kind of punitive intervention is the best way to improve teaching and learning outcomes for pupils, particularly in a context of declining funding and rising costs, where teachers and school leaders already struggle with excessive workload, driven by an inspection system that encourages them to value looking good above doing good. Little wonder schools are struggling to recruit and retain teaching staff.

But perhaps the most vivid example of the short-sightedness of the government’s approach is in adult further education, which has seen the deepest cuts of any part of the education sector. Further education as a whole is having a tough time. The coalition’s near-obsessive focus on apprenticeships, combined with a willingness to put the interests of other sectors ahead of those of FE, has seen courses cut, staff made redundant and sector morale plummet. As a result, options for students are narrowing. Further education appears to have few friends in parliament – and has one supporter less with the significant loss of Vince Cable. Adult further education has seen the most devastating cuts of all, reduced by 25 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, with a further 24 per cent cut to non-apprenticeship adult learning planned for 2015-16. The Association of Colleges is warning that adult further education could be a thing of the past by 2020.

As Mark Carney suggests, the loss of these opportunities is nothing short of disastrous. It represents the continued prevalence of a narrowly conceived economism in education, an approach which is a failure, even on its own terms. Opportunities to learn should be available to all, at every age, on and off the job, with funding following the learner rather than the prejudices of ministers. Instead, we are moving towards a two-tier, one-chance education system in which most children are trained for employment, with a fully rounded creative and cultural education available only to those following the gilded path to an elite university – overwhelmingly those who start out privileged – and few opportunities to return should things not work out first time around. Education should not be about joining the dots of a picture someone else has already sketched. It should be about (to borrow Paul Klee’s phrase) ‘taking a line for a walk’, gaining the resources we need to learn and develop in our own way – and that, above all, demands a wide curriculum and a creative one, as well as opportunities for second, third and even fourth chances. To quote Dewey again, it is ‘illiberal and immoral to train children to work not freely and intelligently but for the sake of the work earned, in which case their activity is not free because it is not freely participated in.’

Sadly, our schools and colleges increasingly resemble factories churning out young people with the requisite qualifications to gain employment and not much more (and often failing to do even that). The economic pay-off at the end is everything, the consequences of failure enormous and second chances are increasingly squeezed. As the OECD reported recently, the skills gap between young people not in employment, education or training and those in work is significantly wider in England and Northern Ireland than in other developed countries. The scale of social inequality makes the consequences of slipping down the ladder still graver, as every good middle-class parent knows. And we make sure our children feel the pressure as early as possible through a regime of testing that begins ludicrously early. As they get older, study further, and take on the huge debts now associated with a decent education, the pressure to remain on the treadmill, to work not reflect, to accept not criticise, grows greater. We are a society increasingly governed by our private and public fears, unwilling to take risks or think creatively, unable, seemingly, to expand our moral horizons, even to include people in mortal peril. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we are stuck with the education system we have rather than the one we need.

The crisis in adult education

It won’t grab many headlines, even in the specialist education press, but there is a growing crisis in adult participation in education and training, with stark implications both for our economy and our democracy. If the trend continues it will soon be necessary to reinvent from scratch a part of the education system which has taken over a century to build up.

The government yesterday released its latest figures on adult participation in further education and apprenticeship training – and the news, predictably enough, was bad. They revealed an 11 per cent fall in adult participation in state-funded learning overall between 2012-13 and 2013-14, a nine per cent drop at Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent), and an 18 per cent decrease at Level 3 (A-level or equivalent), the point at which qualifications begin to make a significant difference in terms of future earnings and life chances (and lifting people out of the low-pay trap). The numbers are even starker for older adults. There were 27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34 per cent fewer in Level 4 provision (equivalent to Certificates of Higher Education). In addition, the sector saw a nine per cent drop in adults (19-plus) on government-supported maths and English courses.

This follows a similarly dramatic decline in mature participation in higher education in the UK, and particularly in England, following the introduction of the coalition’s HE reforms, which in effect trebled the cost of higher study and replaced grant funding with financing through loans. The extension of loans to some part-time students was hailed as a step forward in terms of levelling the playing field between full-time and part-time, but a combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older adults, and a tough economic climate (unemployment, low pay, rising costs of living, and a squeeze on employer training budgets) has seen numbers plummet. There was a 46 per cent drop in part-time undergraduate entrants – the vast majority of whom are mature students attempting to develop new skills or improve existing ones while juggling family, work and other commitments – between 2010-11 and 2013-14, with full-time mature student recruitment also failing to keep up with enrolments among younger students (which have remained stable).

As I’ve argued before, part-time mature study is one of the big unsung success stories of UK higher education – the outcome of much toil and inspiration, often against the grain of public policy. It had been in decline for a number of years before the government introduced the latest fees and funding reforms, in large part due to the Labour government’s notorious ELQ rule, which withdrew state support for students studying for a qualification at a level lower than or equivalent to one they already possessed, and represented the final straw for many university lifelong learning departments. While the coalition has relaxed the policy for subjects adjudged economically valuable (STEM subjects), it still excludes a large majority of part-timers from access to loans. These students are still obliged to pay the significantly inflated part-time fees upfront. And even for those students who can access loans the increase in fees makes higher education an altogether riskier and less attractive proposition. Little wonder than that we have seen such a huge collapse in numbers among this group of students.

There are lessons to be learned from this but it is clear the government has not learned them. Despite repeated warnings from within further education the coalition opted to pursue the same high-risk strategy in a sector which had already seen a steady decline in adult participation, as well as a pronounced shift in support to courses with narrow basic skills or employability outcomes. From 2013–14, funding was withdrawn for a range of courses for over-24s and replaced with a system of government-backed loans for learners aged 24 and over undertaking qualifications at Level 3 or higher. We have begun to see the impact of this intervention. In 2012–13, more than 400,000 people aged 24-plus took courses at Levels 3 and 4. Figures for 2013–14, show that only 57,000 students aged 24-plus took up loans at this level. Subsequent figures show that only 43,830 applications for the loans were made between April 2014 and September 2014. This suggests both that there has been a very substantial drop in participation among older adults at this level and that recruitment is showing no signs of recovery. Worryingly, the government is already consulting on expanding the loan scheme. The latest participation figures should make ministers think again – and hard.

Budgetary pressure on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has, of course, been enormous, and, despite the best efforts of secretary of state Vince Cable to defend the sector, the cuts have been eye-wateringly deep. While new money was found for apprenticeships, the government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16. This meant an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 billion in 2010–2012 to £2 billion in 2015–16 (before inflation is taken into account). The budgets for offender learning and community learning, while unchanged, have remained static for many years, meaning their real-term levels are much reduced. Meanwhile, the Department for Education reduced spending on 16 to 18-year-olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 year olds from September this year. Perversely, as Vince Cable told a fringe meeting at this year’s Liberal Democrat party conference, these outcomes represent something of a ‘result’ for the sector. In 2010, he told delegates, he had personally blocked a move to withdraw all state funding from further education (a step, civil servants assured him, ‘nobody will really notice’).

With direct state funding being consistently withdrawn from core areas of adult learning and skills, many providers will be looking ahead to next week’s autumn statement (due on 3 December) with apprehension. Coping with year-on-year cuts and instability has become a day-to-day concern of managers and leaders in the FE sector. As Vince Cable’s anecdote suggests, further education continues to be little understood in the corridors of Whitehall – not surprising given the depressingly narrow social make-up of our senior politicians and civil servants. Few will have experienced further education or have any understanding of the critical importance of second chances to so many in our society. Yet it should be obvious, even to those with limited understanding of the sector, that the provision of opportunities for adults to continue learning throughout their lives is of immense value – a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. A cursory look at the challenges we face as a society should suffice to demonstrate that.

To begin with, the UK faces a major skills challenge – one complicated and made more acute by the undeniable but equally largely unacknowledged reality of demographic change. According to the OECD, England’s young people are among the worst in the developed world in terms of literacy and numeracy – with England the only one in which the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults. The OECD’s 2013 skills survey found that around 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland, 24.1 per cent of the population, had such basic levels of numeracy that they can manage only one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers of reading graphs. This compares to an average of 19 per cent of adults with such basic numeracy levels across the developed world. The OECD warned that the ‘talent pool of skilled adults’ in England was likely to shrink relative to other countries and called for more ‘second chance’ opportunities for low-skilled adults to learn.  This is particularly troubling in the context of an ageing society in which a high proportion of the jobs of the future will be taken by the workforce of today. Some 13.5 million vacancies are expected over the next 10 years, with only seven million new labour market entrants to fill them.

At the same time, the UK has a significant problem with productivity, linked to low pay and low skills. Productivity is 30 per cent higher in France, Germany and the USA than in the UK and is four per cent lower here than it was in the first quarter of 2008, its pre-recession peak. A recent report from Labour think-tank the Smith Institute found that countries with better productivity records ‘have more high-skilled employment and less unskilled employment’, citing research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which shows that a third of UK workers are overqualified for their job. Unsurprisingly, given the economy’s bias towards low-skilled jobs, low pay is an acute problem in the UK (as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted this week). Some five million people are paid below the living wage. And, for the first time, the majority of people in poverty in the UK live in households in which at least one adult is working. Employment is on the up, but most new jobs are low-paid and insecure, with outsourcing and zero-hours contracts on the rise. Wages are falling in real terms and 1.3 million people are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work.

Addressing the problem of low pay demands not just more jobs, but better jobs, with skills development at their core. There is growing recognition of the importance of skills to this agenda, and of the need to develop a strategy for skills linked to employment and economic policy. This was borne out in this week’s report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, supported by the CBI and the TUC, which called for radical change to the skills system. Yet as the latest drop in adult participation in FE shows, government reforms are making this change harder to achieve and more remote. The prospects for a high-productivity, high-performance economy, in which adults have opportunities to retrain, upskill or change career at different points in their lives, look bleak indeed. At the same time, the vision articulated in the early days of the last government, of a learning society in which education for citizenship, social cohesion, and personal development and fulfillment was valued alongside education to find and get on at work, has receded so far that it barely registers in the collective memory of a sector battered by continual cuts and bewildered by near-constant reform. As Vince Cable has hinted, unless we find ways of increasing the resources flowing into further and higher education, more and deeper cuts are inevitable, making inclusive, sustainable growth and the development of a better, happier, more resilient, engaged and cohesive society, increasingly unlikely.