Closing the skills gap will take some doing

15th May 2015 at 01:00
The UK is facing a recruitment crisis - the solution is a national baccalaureate that balances theory with hands-on practice

Writing before the general election, as I am, it is clear that whoever has "won" by the time you read these words will face a growing problem: skills.

Forecasts suggest that we will need about 1.3 million new scientists, engineers and technicians over the next eight to 10 years. Other sectors, ranging from construction to social care, face an equally massive recruitment challenge.

There are two main reasons for so many predicted vacancies: one is our welcome return to economic growth; the other is the huge number of baby boomers expected to retire from skilled jobs between now and 2025.

But right now, something has gone awry. Even as employers recruit thousands of staff from abroad, one in six of all 19- to 24-year-olds in the UK are classed as Neet (not in education, employment or training). Just as frightening is the figure published by the Office for National Statistics stating that 44 per cent of the people who left university in the past five years are in jobs that don't require a degree.

One source of the mismatch is the age-old academic-vocational divide, which steers young people in one of two directions on the basis of their attainment in traditional subjects.

The problem isn't helped by young people devoting little time to practical work, especially in secondary school. Would-be scientists spend less time in the laboratory than they used to, even when studying for A-levels; universities find they have to teach quite basic skills to get first-year students up to speed.

Design and technology has been squeezed, too, and fewer young people are taking vocational subjects at key stage 4.

This has come about because of an increased focus on learning by listening and reading - and, of course, on the English Baccalaureate performance measure and facilitating subjects favoured by Russell Group universities.

In fairness, practical work still counts towards exams in art and design, and performances are marked in music and theatre studies. But the skills involved in designing, planning, making and engineering physical objects have taken a back seat; this is exemplified by the fact that, in future, marks awarded for practicals won't count towards science A-levels.

For students who do well in exams, the message is that learning-by-writing trumps learning-by-doing. It's not surprising that the numbers of students studying arts, humanities and social sciences at university have surged but those taking applied qualifications, such as higher national diplomas and foundation degrees, have declined.

Meanwhile, options for students who don't do so well in exams are, if anything, even more restricted. With hardly any experience of practical subjects at school, there's a strong chance they won't know what to do next.

We need to overhaul our education system and prepare future generations for the huge range of jobs our economy needs to fill. The simple truth is this: people need both knowledge and skills, not one or the other.

Rebalancing act

To help restore the balance, I believe we should introduce a national baccalaureate that recognises the full breadth of young people's achievements in the four years from 14-18. The NBacc would include academic, creative and technical qualifications, as well as the personal skills that employers value most highly, such as teamwork and problem-solving.

Although a few tests would take place at fixed points (for example, maths and English at 16 and 18), students would sit most exams and practical assignments when they were ready.

This is the approach taken in a growing number of countries. I have seen it for myself in British Columbia, where young people work towards the Dogwood Diploma, and in New Zealand, where they have the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. In both cases, young people study a core curriculum alongside an interesting range of options that include many practical, creative and technical subjects.

So I welcome the launch of the National Baccalaureate Trust in June. It will take forward the pioneering work of the Headteachers' Roundtable, and build on evidence from leading researchers such as Ken Spours of the UCL Institute of Education.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a national baccalaureate cannot be delivered by schools alone. Colleges provide post-16 education and training for vast numbers of 16- to 19-year-olds. Many also have an active involvement pre-16, through direct recruitment at 14, partnerships with local schools and support for studio schools and university technical colleges.

In my vision of the future, colleges and schools would work together in local clusters to deliver the national baccalaureate. All young people would have opportunities to visit colleges and apprenticeship providers for taster classes before choosing the options that count towards their final NBacc.

And yes, I do mean all young people. Every single student should have the right to choose practical and applied subjects as part of their NBacc programme, including those who are currently guided towards an entirely traditional curriculum.

I am convinced that a more flexible four-year programme of study would broaden the curriculum, introduce young people to new opportunities and help close the skills gap.

In our pre-election manifesto, my charity Edge Foundation pointed out that the Neet group includes people with degrees as well as those with few qualifications. The target for any government ought to be simple and bold: an end to Neets. And for that, we need a national baccalaureate.

David Harbourne is acting chief executive of education charity the Edge Foundation

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