What's gone wrong in education and skills in England?

The country's weaknesses in skills, productivity and attainment need addressing, but how? Tom Bewick shares his ideas

FE, skills, further education, technical education, apprenticeships, BTECs, Colleges, FE colleges, Tom Bewick, FE funding, funding for FE

Each summer is an obligatory rite of passage for our young people. In vocational and technical subjects, thousands of students taking BTECs, NVQs, Cambridge Technical qualifications, GCSEs and A levels will find out their results. 

This year’s annual results days come after the Commons Education Select Committee called on the government to develop a 10-year plan for school and college funding. The committee found a “troubling lack of long-term vision” and concluded: “Education is a strategic national priority that has profound consequences across a wide range of social and economic policy issues.”

But what, exactly, has gone wrong in education and skills policy? To really answer this question, we need to look fundamentally at some of the underlying issues.


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The big picture

Universal state-provided education was a product of the 19th-century industrial revolution. Mass manufacturing gave rise to the scientific method of production, which translated across a key principle of British education.

Schools and most colleges operate in a manner not too dissimilar from the early factories: catering for mass intake, educating in a linear fashion and measuring output with how many achieve the final stamp of approval (in the form of national exams). 

All of this is to prepare students to be productive adult citizens. The big problem is that 149 years on from the Forster Act (which established compulsory education for children aged between 5 and 13 in England and Wales), we still “fail” roughly half of the pupils who attend compulsory education.

Shifting from linear to digital

The traditional model of education no longer reflects how our modern society actually works. Knowledge is now free to anyone who can read and has an internet connection. The old analogue world has given way to a digital consumer society based around abundance, diversity and choice. 

Pedagogical evidence shows that although children adapt to these changes, they often struggle to learn in age-defined classes. Instead of helping young minds develop a love of learning, we kill off individual expression and critical analysis through end-point examinations that may only measure the efficacy of revision schedules.

According to the Education Policy Institute's annual report, persistently disadvantaged pupils are now almost two years (22.6 months) behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. It starts when children are born: impoverished four-year-olds are already around four months behind their richer peers when they start school.

Parents living in more deprived areas and on peripheral council estates have a 50 per cent lower chance of living near an "outstanding" school than those living in more affluent areas. 

Our comprehensive state education is based on selection – but based on sky-rocketing house and rental prices, rather than academic ability. It amounts to the same thing: institutional forms of inequality and government failure across the entire system. As the select committee highlighted, these issues are further compounded by an 8 per cent cut in per-pupil funding in real terms since 2010.

The expense of under 24s

The one-size-fits-all problem continues in post-18 education, in which we currently spend £20 billion per annum. Over 90 per cent of all education expenditure goes on 18- to 24-year-olds – 80 per cent of this is directed towards universities in tuition fees and maintenance loans.

Despite investment, 40 per cent of 19-year-olds are without a level 3 qualification. Meanwhile, in apprenticeships policy there has been a complete collapse in starts for 16- to 24-year-olds since 2010 – over the past few years, this has started to rise once more. And 41 per cent of taxpayer-funded apprenticeships are now undertaken by the over-24s. 

Rising higher education debt

According to the Student Loans Company, in March 2019, outstanding unpaid loans amounted to £121 billion. By the middle of the century, it’s estimated to rise to £450 billion. The treasury estimates that just 30 per cent of loans will be recovered. Planning to write off two-thirds as bad debts makes a mockery of the whole HE finances model. It means the driver that has never been to university will pay higher taxes in the future than the doctorate graduate (who may never earn enough to start paying back their student loans).

A low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity spiral 

In terms of skill levels, the UK ranks 23rd in the Global Human Capital Index compiled by the World Economic Forum. Productivity is about a fifth less than the US and Germany. Our economic model has been built around sucking in low-skilled labour mainly to keep a lid on domestic wage and price inflation. While there are many benefits of skilled migration, the truth is that employer investment in home-grown talent and skills has collapsed over the past decade.  

The government recognised this and introduced the UK-wide apprenticeship levy – but widespread dissatisfaction with the levy remains. Employers were told they would be given more purchasing power and "ownership" of the skills system. In practice, the system is run by well-meaning technocrats in Whitehall, as former education secretary David Blunkett said, as a kind of “Soviet warehousing operation”.

The demands of the 21st century

We need to look afresh at education and skills from cradle to grave – but it’s not necessarily about reinventing the wheel.

We could address the age-developmental-bias some children experience by teaching pupils in less age-defined classes. The state system could be freed from the top-down national curriculum to experiment more. And more funding could be given to deprived areas to put on proper summer catch-up schools. 

The onset of the fourth industrial revolution is going to require teaching and learning to become far less linear – problem-solving will have to be based on pedagogical ideas, rather than tightly defined subject disciplines. 

In the post-compulsory sphere of education the focus has understandably been about the inequities of funding. In one sense, parity of resource in post-18 education is more achievable and desirable than the mirage that has become parity of esteem.

Perhaps the only real way to readdress the inequalities is to take some very difficult decisions about disestablishing the privileged position of the universities. After all, they consume more than 80 per cent of post-compulsory education public expenditure. It is simply not possible to address urgent skills needs, fund more apprenticeships, or provide adults with the tools to retrain throughout life, without also breaking down the monopolistic stranglehold that Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities currently have on public resources.

In the future, we may look back on this period like we look back on Henry VIII and his dissolution of the monasteries. At the time, a great rupture – but in the long arch of history, it became possible to democratise knowledge, information and power, since these medieval institutions were no longer allowed to operate as the sole gatekeepers of learning and truth. 

Perhaps in today’s febrile debate about the future of education and skills policy, we may benefit from a similar kind of reformation.

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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