The race is underway for the next Conservative leader – and the UK’s next prime minister. Already, we’ve had launch speeches from the five initial candidates – and three of them have included some remarks on education.
Education is a staple issue of many political campaigns (despite plummeting in recent years on most voters’ priority issues). It’s also a good shorthand to indicate where you stand on a range of issues – triggering what Daniel Kahneman calls system one thinking (emotional, subjective, heuristic) among listeners.
Consider, for example, two (hypothetical) pitches. Politician one says that the issues with education in England are that pupil behaviour is unacceptable in too many schools; we don’t stretch the brightest students enough; too many pupils take low value qualifications and pathways at 14 and 16; and we have a shortage of teachers in crucial STEM subjects.
Politician two says that the issues are that many parents worry about the quality of their local school because they don’t have a choice; that teachers work hard, but there aren’t enough of them – especially in the areas that need them most; that the poorest children still get a bad deal across so many facets of schooling; and that disadvantage compounds itself.
Both of these are factually true. But they indicate – deliberately, in the case of those giving the remarks – very different politicians. You could have a good guess at what they think about other issues from these pitches. So the fact that the theme of all leadership candidates on education has been closer to politician two is significant.
Also floated gently in a couple of campaigns has been the link between education – especially technical education – and growth, productivity and jobs post Brexit.
Many employers in the UK have used immigration to address skills shortages. The total net migration of EU workers was 184,000 people in 2015 (with a further 149,000 coming from outside the EU).
The data also shows that a large number of migrants come to the UK with intermediate or high-level skills – the OECD estimates over a third have tertiary level qualifications. EU migrants also have higher employment rates than UK nationals (EU15 countries 75 per cent, the 10 new member states 83 per cent, and UK-born nationals 74 per cent).
It is not clear what the impact of Brexit will be on free movement of labour but it is almost certain to decline to some extent. There will be a high political need to avoid a significant economic shock, and show that the UK can fill these likely skills gaps by training more of our own young people in high-quality technical areas.
The stock answer so far is the target of 3 million apprenticeships. But there are real questions emerging as to whether that’s the right goal – and indeed what the impact of Brexit will be on the levy on large businesses that funds apprenticeships, and on the colleges that are needed to deliver them. Simply holding fast to a target without acknowledging the underlying weaknesses in the system isn’t good enough. The new PM, whoever they are, will need to get a grip of this as a top priority.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit @PXEducation