The combination of Brexit, concerns about economic productivity and alarm over social mobility has put the spotlight firmly on skills and training. This sector was already a recipient of numerous policy initiatives and interventions – if not always the resources to help deliver better outcomes for young people – but now the debate about the future of work and life is almost feverish.
There are plenty of thoughtful and well-researched publications and policy papers about specifically defined issues. These are useful but there is a growing appetite for something more comprehensive and long-term, recognising the links between the impact of a fast-changing economy and the need to be more imaginative in the way we think about skills, lengthy and complex career pathways and, above all, young people as they confront key decisions about their future.
In short, this requires an ambitious, openminded and, crucially, independent review and set of ideas for the next several decades; less of continuous chop and change in policy and more embedded, evidence-based and sustainable solutions. The Commission on Sustainable Learning for Work, Life and a Changing Economy has been formed to help make this happen.
The commission is supported by Pearson but will be rigorously independent – it is modelled on the House of Commons Education Select Committee and is, of course, being led by its former chair. Membership is drawn from a wide range of interests, including industry (Airbus), professions (PWC), Universities (London South Bank University and Nottingham University), small businesses, schools, colleges, thinktanks and foundations.
There are six themes running through the commission’s work plan. Firstly, the future of work, itself, and the drivers of change such as demographic trends, emerging technologies, evolution of the firm and the developing nature of work. Next, the relationship between academic study and professional/technical training – striking the right balance, navigating choice and accommodating new opportunities.
Not surprisingly, the interface between employers, businesses and professions with educators will be explored. Here, exploring alternative approaches in, for instance, Germany and South Korea, will be the "comparative study" element. Curriculum design and delivery will be matched to assessments and awards – T levels are a part of this intricate relationship – but big questions remain about recognition, parity and relevance.
Education is nowhere near being a perfect market where everybody has fair access to information and the ability to make fully informed decisions. Getting closer to a perfect market requires better signposting, clearer routes and an understanding of how lifelong learning should be delivered. This is another area of focus for the commission.
Finally, the commission will identify and expose barriers to institutions and opportunities for learners and employers. Obviously, this will include diversity and social mobility but questions must also be asked about the unintended consequences of existing policies and processes such as league tables and inspection systems.
No assumptions will be left unchallenged and no vested interests will be safe from scrutiny. This policy area is too important to get wrong – as the commission will also demonstrate through the use of economic analysis – and its final report will be, at the very least, a significant contribution to the policymaking process.
Professor Neil Carmichael is chair of the Commission on Sustainable Learning for Work, Life and a Changing Economy
Rod Bristow is president of UK and core markets at Pearson