Skills for the Future (part1)

Dick Evans is worried about how we plan provision of education to meet future skills needs

Introduction, background and scene setting

This is the first part of a two part piece on skills in which I will attempt to provide the background for this important topic. I will describe the factors in play across the skills spectrum and the way the government is tackling the problem of persistent skills shortages and gaps including the continuing levels of poor numeracy in the adult population.

Skills still seem to be a top priority for the government, but are the strategies and policies being developed correct? In spite of a great deal of resources being currently expended on the skills agenda significant problems still persist at all levels of the skills spectrum. One critical facet of the skills deficit is associated with literacy, numeracy and the use of IT. Evidence from surveys and research publications continues to highlight poor achievement and outline the factors that mitigate and deter improvement strategies on skills:

  • Continued poor levels of literacy and numeracy skills especially among adults
  • The 2009 SATs test results have shown that 35,000 pupils will leave primary school unable to read or write properly. In addition the results show that 21 % of pupils failed to reach level 4 in mathematics
  • 47% of adult non-learners preferred to pursue other activities than learning by attending formal classes and over 30% said they were not interested in learning per se (Source: The Skills Task Group Reports 1998-2000)
  • Mathematics and mathematical related subjects continue to be unpopular options at the post-16 stage
    *    The current absence of any effective strategies and policies for the education and training for over 25 year olds
    *    The continued hostility by a significant number of adults and young people towards mathematical subjects and numerical concepts.

Future employment

One element that is often overlooked in the current reforms and debates is an awareness of the rapidly changing nature of future employment. The UK economy is now predominantly service based driven by consumerism. As a nation we manufacture and export very little as evidenced by our large trade deficits. It is interesting to note that about 10% of the working population i.e. 3 million people, are now involved in retail occupations. Also the way manufacturing is defined for statistical returns and reports now includes such occupational areas as design, entertainment, multi-media technologies and music – not what we would have traditionally thought of as part of the sector. However these areas of activity are relatively successful so perhaps, as the government suggests, a component of this country’s future economic health will be based on the creative industries. The nature and composition of the occupational sectors in the future will inevitably determine the skills that will be required by people in work. Employers have identified what skills they think they will require now and in the future and they include:

*    Basic skills in literacy, numeracy and the use of IT
*    Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced skills for specific scientific and technological occupations and skills for specific trades and crafts
*    Skills for business, commercial and service based occupations, e.g. hospitality
*    Skills for technician and operative occupations
*    Skills for IT and mathematical related occupations
*    Management and leadership skills.

  • Innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

All these will require a solid foundation in the basic skills especially the ability to communicate and carry out numerical operations. Therefore the skills achieved in schools, colleges and other providers must more closely match those that will be required in employment and as such the skills strategies must provide a firm foundation for employability.

In addition employers have often voiced concerns that the current courses and qualifications provided by schools and colleges do not always meet their needs. Employers have also identified the poor quality of careers advice, guidance and information that is currently available. Comprehensive and relevant careers services are essential in order to help people embark on the provision that matches their abilities and aspirations. This is particularly important for people who possess poor literacy and numeracy skills whether they are in work or looking for work.

Current policies

But will the current reforms and the resultant attempts to create flexible enough curricula frameworks, models and delivery opportunities resolve the problems. This is compounded by the challenges arising from global competition and the current financial crisis? Such turbulent times require radical decisions, strategies and policies.

However reading the multitude of policy statements, research papers and reports from innumerable task groups, the lessons from past attempts to resolve skill shortages and gaps seem to have been largely overlooked or forgotten. It’s the classic case of political and historical amnesia with lots of people and organisations rushing to jump on the band wagon without any real depth of understanding or analysis of the complex factors in play. At present the fallout from the global financial crisis demands a fundamental rethink of the skills agenda at all levels. One of the first budget cuts in difficult financial times is often the funding of training both at government and company levels. The country is bankrupt with personal and corporate debt, so there is little chance of sufficient funding for post-16 education and training – including adult education – what money is available will go to schools. As unemployment rises during the current recession/depression, companies can be even more selective in their limited recruitment campaigns having a pool of qualified unemployed people to draw from and people with no skills will continue to be marginalized. One recurring criticism made by agencies involved with adult education is that Britain has always invested in the young and those who are already successful. Given these existing problems the current proposals to reform and tackle the skills challenge are not radical enough and tend to be too atavistic and have ludicrously long time scales.

Key questions

A number of key questions arise about our preparedness for future skills needs:

*    Are the emerging skills strategies and models in this country sufficiently flexible and sufficient in scope to cope with the rapidly changing global labour markets and all the required skills?
*    Are the very complex issues associated with rapidly developing technologies, innovation and technology transfers, being properly addressed in the current skills agendas? How can education and training programmes keep abreast of these rapid changes?
*    Are the current developments sufficiently sensitive to the subtle dynamics associated with skills, e.g. rapidly emerging new technologies and applications of science?
*    How can more effective strategies be developed to tackle the problems associated with the learning and teaching of basic skills and overcoming the reluctance among adults to be involved in further study and learning support programmes?
*    Are the consequences of demographic change fully appreciated and planned for?
*    Is sufficient attention being focussed on up-skilling and cross-skilling the existing workforce? With a declining young population, older workers are even more important and must receive equal attention in training and CPD programmes.
*    Is sufficient attention being given to the involvement of informed employers, workers and their representatives in developing a flexible model for the skills agenda or are the current policies for representation mere tokenism?
*    Is sufficient attention being given to global competitiveness and the challenges of market advantage that will require flexibility, rapid innovation and a high degree of diversification when developing policies, strategies and tactics for skills?
*    Is there sufficient urgency about current skills development? Leitch time lines 2020 – perfect vision -but this is far too leisurely compared with the pace of many of our major competitors.

The list is by no means complete but attempts to illustrate the many complex interacting factors that most certainly require an urgent rethink and their impact on the skills agenda.

Part 2 will attempt to consider in more depth the challenges of trying to improve the poor levels of numeracy. Are there other approaches that will improve the situation?

Dick Evans is a regular contributor to Numeracy Briefing


  • Reports of the National Skills Task Force 1998-2000 Chaired by Chris Humphreys
  • Leitch Review of Skills Final Report 2006 Key Stage 2 Test Results (SATS) DCSF 2009

Read: Skills for the Future (part2)

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