Neil Carmichael argues ‘levelling up’ will only be achieved by reforms at every level of education
When the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced his Lifetime Skills Guarantee in September, he said it was time to end the pointless gulf, fixed for generations, between the so-called academic and the so-called practical. Also necessary is tackling productivity and social deprivation through improving access to training and skills. His announcement was a clarion call towards creating the momentum to address the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
Unfortunately for the government, Covid-19 and lockdown have been conspiring to upset levelling up plans. Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, has commented on the likely ‘stretching’ of the gap between the rich and poor because of the pandemic’s impact on the economy and society.
It is not just Covid-19. While the government is unlikely to admit to the obvious economic pressures resulting from Brexit, the impact of more challenging trading conditions and emerging problems in the recruitment of specific skills as we leave the EU single market will mean harder times to come. Bluntly, incremental reform in just one sector of education will not be enough to tackle these issues.
Ideas for reform
This is not to suggest a shortage of ideas about how reforms should be implemented. The Pearson Independent Apprenticeship Policy Group, which I chaired, came up with a raft of relevant reforms just as Covid-19 was gripping the UK. Making sure training fits employers’ requirements, simplifying standards by having just one regulator for external quality assurance and emphasising progression were some of its recommendations. It is hoped this work will be picked up again when ‘normal times’ resume.
But while the Lifetime Skills Guarantee includes many commitments—mostly about funding and where extra support might land—they only go so far. Upgrading further education colleges with capital investment is welcome but is a promise that has been made before; funding free technical courses equivalent to A-levels for adults is tantalising but is wedded to the existing post-16 system; and expanding apprenticeships to make them more ‘portable’, therefore encouraging progression, is a good idea but so far has raised questions about deliverability.
The need for training to be in line with new employment opportunities, such as climate change and connected technologies, and the potential for universities to play a part as conveners in city regions points to the possibility of more root-and-branch reform.
The Future Perfect Education Commission, of which I was a member, suggested incrementalism—advocated by the US academic, Charles Lindblom, in his book The Science of Muddling Through—should be replaced by a more rational approach, akin to the 1944 Education Act.
Where to start
Public policymaking often begins with a discourse about where to start, but in education the maxim should be as early as possible in the linear journey of the pupil or student. The prime minister’s views on the “pointless gulf” between the academic and the practical in part chime with commonly held concerns about the current curriculum being knowledge rich but excessively narrow—a problem that takes root from the start. It is a view strongly endorsed by the Edge Foundation, an independent education charity, which has bemoaned the construction of the “Ebacc” and stressed the need for a broadly based curriculum.
A better curriculum would be broad and rich with an emphasis on both knowledge and essential skills. Internationally, a broader curriculum seems to be preferred. If schools had a broader curriculum then the post-16 arena might be less congested with the scramble for essential skills.
The blocker to all of this is the examination system. The summer crisis notwithstanding, we need a proper debate about assessment—formative and summative—but, more specifically, a debate about the GCSE. Education or training is now compulsory for the two years after GCSEs are concluded so should we not move to a model of certification of academic achievement and skills at this stage instead?
The Lifetime Skills Guarantee inadvertently highlights another problem. For too long further education and post-16 generally has been number two or worse on the list of priorities. This must change—not only because of the number of 16-18 year olds attending such institutions but also because of the need to integrate academic and vocational routes. Sadly, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee seems to be focusing on tackling the consequences of a ‘two-tier’ system rather than seeking to stop them happening in the first place.
Employers also have responsibilities. I was fortunate to visit the then newly built Porsche car factory in Leipzig, Germany. One of the most striking discoveries was to see a supply chain, complete with schools, colleges and universities, mapped out in the director’s office. We need to foster a similar attitude across the UK.
To deliver the education system we need for the world to come requires radical change from top to bottom, where teaching is the ‘profession of choice’, learning is about both knowledge and skills in their widest senses, and students are fully equipped to be confident players in the economy and society. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee is nowhere near ambitious enough.
Now is the time for a grand redesign of the education system. Just as the Second World War propelled the 1944 Education Act, the position the UK now faces requires similar political courage and rigorous thinking to give our young people the chance to succeed.
Neil Carmichael is an honorary professor, University of Nottingham, and UCL (Institute of Education), chief executive officer of UCEC (Education China), and chair of the Commission on Sustainable Learning for Work, Life and a Changing Economy (Pearson UK). He is a former Conservative MP and former chair of the Commons education select committee.