We must equip youngsters for increasingly rapid change

16 Jun 2019, 5:00

Why are we educating the young for the low-paid, low-productivity present, instead of the workplace challenges of the future? ask Estelle Morris and David Blunkett

Few will be surprised when we say that there is absolutely nothing new about a sense of disconnect between education ministers and the teaching profession. As former education secretaries, we should know. When Labour took power in 1997 and moved in to what was then the Department for Education and Employment, a disaffection both with the outgoing government and the incoming Labour team was palpable.

But we say that there was – and still is – a very big difference between disaffection arising from ministers pushing the profession very hard on standards and the transformation of opportunity for children, and one based on a fundamental disagreement based on what education should be for.

There is no doubt that when the Labour government came in it expected a great deal, and very rapidly, from a teaching profession that was demoralised, massively underfunded and frankly exhausted. At the time, as is painfully familiar now, there was a shortage of teachers particularly in some areas of the curriculum, and schools were on a four or four-and-a-half-day week.

Our key policy drivers 21 years ago were primarily focused on lifting the heads of the whole of the profession, investing in early years, SureStart, and of course spreading the literacy and numeracy programmes right across the primary sector.

What we learnt then was twofold: firstly, that you have to spend more time than you really have  to explain, persuade, cajole and above all ensure that teachers feel that they own the changes that you’re bringing in; secondly, that you embed your changes so that they become part of the fabric.

Clearly, given the feeling by teachers that even the most effective of our changes on literacy and numeracy were felt to be top-down, there was much more we could have done to emphasise the flexibility available and the professional judgment to be used.

What we are seeing at the moment is a different kind of disconnect, which is about the very nature of education. Are we educating youngsters to fit into existing patterns of employment and to meet low-level, lowly paid employment, or do we have a vision of the world of tomorrow which will equip youngsters to cope with increasingly rapid change?

A disconnect between ministers and teachers is not new

These are profound issues, not only in terms of the future prospects for individuals but also the nature of our economy. The government, partly caught in a time warp, has failed to grasp the needs of the future rather than the low-level productivity, low-wage economy of the moment.

And it’s not just us saying it. Recently, Lord Browne and Antony Jenkins, former chief executive of Barclays, used a BBC interview to reject the government’s “narrow” approach to the skills needs of the future. What they underlined is the need to provide people at school level and through lifelong learning with a preparedness to take on the new challenges of a very different workplace in years to come.

If you have heard this cry before, then it’s no surprise, because this has been a familiar refrain over the past two decades. The EBacc and the imminent introduction of T-level qualifications are reinforcing moves in the wrong direction.

The idea of parity between vocational and academic post-16 qualifications has been an admirable aspiration for a long time. It is something that the Tomlinson Report sought to address some 14 years ago, only for his recommendations to be rejected by the Labour government.

Now, we see massive gaps in productivity, growth and educational outcomes across the country, specifically the gap between London (and the South East) and the rest of England. These are reinforced by technical level qualifications in a narrow curriculum allocated to colleges to reinforce specific, local, labour market requirements – with the perverse outcome of filling the jobs of the moment without the breadth to be able to take on the workplace of the future with artificial intelligence, robotics and the necessity of team-working and soft skills.

Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, we should learn from the past to make sure education remains relevant in the future.

Baroness Morris and Lord Blunkett will be speaking at next week’s Festival of Education

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  1. Tom Burkard

    Schools do not exist to service the economy–and still less are they capable of doing so. Other than basic literacy and numeracy skills, there is little evidence that schools are even capable of teaching the skills needed in the workplace. As Alison Wolf has pointed out, these change so rapidly that new courses are obsolete before they are even launched. The notion that we can prepare children and young people for jobs that don’t even exist is so risible that only a politician (or a shill for Ed-tech) could dream it up. On the other hand, schools that fail to maintain good standards of discipline are more than capable of turning out adults unfit for any kind of employment.