This weekend, Sheffield Hallam University will host its first Festival of Education – a celebration of the achievements of dedicated teachers across our region. But it also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the challenges that we face as a country and why our education system is so important. As the 21st century takes shape around us – and in addition to the challenge of Brexit – our education system will be central to overcoming three of the largest of these challenges: automation, falling productivity and the rise of the information age.
The automation of the fourth industrial revolution will reduce demand for routine cognitive and manual skills, while increasing demand for high-end cognitive and social skills and maintaining demand for unskilled work. An ageing population and projected fall in GDP per hour worked are predicted to cause economic growth to fall by nearly 50 per cent over the next three decades. And the vast swathes of data that have been brought about by the information revolution – with all its benefits – presents challenges in how we critically assess and analyse data to see through the ‘smog’.
Overcoming these challenges requires an education system that keeps pace with the world around us by adapting to these new complexities. We must equip our young people with both the soft and hard skills to respond to our rapidly changing environment; and we must foster a culture of lifelong learning. If we fail to prepare our education system for those challenges, we risk letting down a generation that, with the right skills and training, has the potential to thrive in the 21st century.
We must reform our education system so that it meets those challenges head on. The magnitude of graduate debts, poverty causing kids to fail, declining numbers of adult learners, low uptake in apprenticeships, five million adults lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills, special educational needs services being disproportionately cut, and a three-tier system of private, grammar and comprehensive schools nearly always benefitting children from wealthier families, are all problems currently faced by our education system. None of them are unfixable, but they require the political will to fix them.
Taking decisions about the curriculum out of the hands of politicians and giving them instead to experts – teachers and educators – would be a welcome start. For too long, successive education secretaries have enacted sweeping reforms based on personally held ideologies, rather than in the interests of learners themselves.
We also need greater collaboration between our educational institutions and employers. I am proud that in South Yorkshire, we are building strong relationships to maximise the potential of our great assets. In partnership with our world-class universities, for instance, we have landed the likes of Boeing and McLaren – who are creating jobs in advanced manufacturing and engineering – and we have seen the creation of three university technical colleges and a new university centre in Rotherham. But the links between our universities, our schools and colleges must be strengthened, so that our educators can better understand the skill sets young people need to access opportunities being created.
Partnerships are incredibly powerful, because we can achieve far greater through our collective efforts than we can achieve alone. We achieve far greater success when we work together, share our ideas and learn best practice from each other.
To coincide with the festival, I was proud to launch Talent Bank, an initiative to get more people from the world of business to share their insights and experiences of the world of work with young people from across our region. Having young people who have a good understanding of the world of work is incredibly important, because it helps them to make better informed choices about their own futures. But we need as many people as possible to get involved, so that we can make the greatest impact.
I believe that where you grow up shouldn’t determine where you end up. Each generation has a responsibility to deliver on a simple promise: to give the next generation better opportunities than their parents had. I support the incredible job that our nation’s teachers do, but inspiring and supporting our young people to become the best versions of themselves is not just their job – it is the responsibility of all of us.
Dan Jarvis MP is the mayor of the Sheffield City Region.