No matter who is marking the homework of our education system, there’s one consistent area that shows room for improvement: preparing people for jobs. From schools, to universities and further education, if Labour and the Conservatives agree on one thing it’s that the main purpose of education is to lead people into fulfilling careers.
But if it sounds obvious, it hasn’t always been the case. The idea of learning for learning’s sake remains prevalent. In universities, much of the education is delivered by academics primarily incentivised to produce brilliant research rather than use technical training. In our school system, the metric that matters most is often progression to higher education rather than careers.
Many institutions are rebalancing their courses towards careers, but those still umming and ahing are about to have their hands forced by policymakers. Keir Starmer’s education mission speech promised a new national curriculum for schools, because pupils ‘need knowledge and skills, practical problem-solving and academic rigour.’ Likewise when Rishi Sunak told Conservative Party Conference that every forthcoming spending review should prioritise education, he did so because he sees it as ‘the best economic policy.’
Both leaders are driven by fears of a skills crisis that has stalled productivity and put the brakes on growth. Firms continue to report that graduates aren’t ready for work, meanwhile 47% of those in employment have done no formal training in the last five years.
For politicians, the solution so far has been to reach for worthy but one-off announcements about alternative structures, outside of the mainstream education system: short-lived T-Levels, the even shorter lived Kickstart program, Traineeships [which were recently defunded], Skills Bootcamps, which are funded ad hoc and returnships for older workers. All of this was announced to great aplomb but now reduced to simply directing over 50s to existing schemes.
Policy wonks in Whitehall struggle to keep up, so pity the people who actually need the training, or the businesses who have to navigate what might work for them.
Alongside apprenticeships, the biggest single policy for re-orienting education towards solving our skills crisis is likely the upcoming Lifelong Learning Entitlement, which grants every individual access to a loan equivalent to the cost of university tuition to cover training through their careers. It can fund short courses, individual modules and programs for people at any career stage who want to access better paid jobs, or switch careers altogether.
By structuring the policy as learner-linked loans rather than new spending, Ministers might have shrewdly opened up the largest new pot of potential education spending for a generation. But this genius could also be its undoing: it will require individuals to be willing to take on loans, and be judicious in opting for courses that do translate into jobs.
Instead, linking learning to jobs will require moving the tectonic plates of the mainstream education system – schools and universities – setting them up for people to access well paid jobs.
That starts with measurement. Schools are overwhelmingly held to account on grades and university placement. We’ve got the data on how schools have an impact on the income, employment, and broader positive destinations of their alumni – let’s put it in front of families while they take decisions about where to enrol.
Second, we can’t change any of that outcome data without fixing the problem of a lack of fundamental digital skills. According to research by Future. Now almost 60% of the population can’t undertake the 20 most basic digital skills. This should be nothing short of a national scandal, particularly because changes to skills needs are accelerating, not slowing and often in unexpected ways. To give one glib example, someone who can use ChatGPT to credibly hack their essays on Tudor history is likely to be of more use in the workplace than someone who knows the life story of Henry VIII. Our curricula needs to reflect that by equipping people to use the latest tools.
But we also need to ensure people can adapt to the tools of the future, not just those of today. So the final stage should be to recognise and incentivise the durable life skills that persist across careers. Soft skills like communication, project management, teamwork, time management and constructive challenge are essential for success in the workplace, often more so than discrete disciplines. In all but the most elite institutions training for these crucial skills is often coincidental rather than deliberate.
The solution here isn’t necessarily what gets taught, but how it happens. Harvard’s Project on Workforce recently published 13 recommendations to strengthen the link between degrees and jobs, including a greater emphasis on team-based exercises and recognition of paid work placements. If exams included spoken presentations and judgement tests they would better mimic the real experience of work.
These changes are not easy – and we should place a high bar on demanding more from teachers operating in a complex system. But moments of national importance in the past have re-configured our education system before – from serving the Empire through the reforming public school headmasters inspired by Thomas Arnold, to the expansion of the university system alongside Britain’s transition to a knowledge economy. Tackling the skills crisis will require new solutions regardless of who is in power.
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