Is Britain's education system fit for purpose?

In depth: Employers have long struggled to get the skills they need, but perhaps we should cut modern schools - and kids - some slack.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 11 Jun 2020

Wanted: a head of coffee for the UK’s Tate galleries. Must be good with people and like coffee. Annual salary: £39,500 per annum, plus a bonus scheme. Note: it is important that the new job-holder does not look down on the museum curators, art historians who are only paid in the region of £35,000 a year.

When the advertisement for the above vacancy appeared earlier this year – admittedly worded slightly differently – there was a shocked and appalled reaction. More money for making coffee than knowing about Gainsborough, Blake and Hockney? The Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry tweeted his despairing response: “I give up, they’ve won.” 

What better illustration could there be of the way educational standards have fallen in this country? Cappuccino is valued more highly than Constable. No wonder the world has gone to the dogs.

But hang on a minute – isn’t this just market forces at work? It turns out that the ‘head of coffee’ job involves managing several people on different sites and supervising the purchasing, grinding and serving of the coffee. It’s actually quite a challenging, practical management role with commercial pressures attached, well worth the almost £40k salary. Whether museum curators are underpaid is another question (answer: they are).

Furthermore, we live in an overwhelmingly service-based economy, where people who possess both expert knowledge and good interpersonal skills are at a premium. When the answer to just about any factual question you can think of is now a mere click or two away, a robot voice could probably tell you all you need to know about the Tate’s art collection. But only a human being will prepare your (single origin) coffee just the way you want it – and serve it to you with a smile.

Such purely economic arguments are, as always, a bit glib. That there was such a furore over the Tate job advertisement does say something important about how the things we value – and the skills that will be needed to provide them in the years to come – are changing. But if there is an educational failure involved, it’s less about a drop in narrow academic achievement – in fact, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey shows performance in reading and science has remained stable, while in maths there has been a marked improvement – and more about whether the system itself is developing the broader range of attributes that coming generations will need in order to thrive.

The time-honoured focus on numeracy and literacy at school still has its place, says author Margaret Heffernan, but people have to be able to think for themselves and that requires something more than just technical competence.

“It’s not that the ‘three Rs’ [reading, writing and arithmetic] don’t matter,” she says, “but on top of that we need reflection, observation, critical thinking, discussions with other people who are different – so social skills are fundamental to this.” And, she adds, well intentioned efforts to offer a “knowledge rich” education, with accountability supported by exam results, have had unfortunate unintended consequences.

“Standardisation through exams is fair but overemphasis on grades limits teachers,” she says. It also limits pupils: “People are getting educated for a grade, not for themselves.” All in all, she believes, it’s scant preparation for life beyond school. “Most work is about problem-solving and thinking with other people. That is corporate life. Social glue is productive, isolating people with devices is unproductive.”

Over-structured approach

Thanks to the ever-more hectic pace of technological change, the future of work is also highly uncertain – many children who are starting school today will do jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. Wouldn’t a broader approach stand them in better stead? “We are facing a great deal of uncertainty. We need minds that are undaunted by that,” says Heffernan.

A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit in January suggested that, among developed countries, the UK is lagging behind in its ability to provide young people with the skills they need for the future, such as analytical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship. The UK’s place in the annual global Educating for the Future index fell from 10th in 2018 to 15th last year, while Finland was top.

The idea that too much rigidity – and too much factual content in the curriculum – limits creative potential may be fashionably progressive, but it is struggling to take root. In the UK in recent years things have gone, if anything, in the opposite direction. The government has insisted on quite an intensive and, critics would say, over-structured approach to education.

Jonathan Simons – a former Downing Street civil servant, now a partner at think tank Public First – makes the case for this shift. “The argument is that every child is entitled to benefit from a broad grounding in the best that has been thought and read,” he says.

Providing tomorrow’s skills today does not entail an either/or choice between depth of understanding and being able to think imaginatively and spontaneously, he adds. “It’s quite hard to be creative or artistic without a deep understanding of the discipline – unless you are an outlier or a genius. This means drawing on what has gone before. You can’t push the boundaries of a discipline unless you have mastered the discipline.”

He also questions the idea that the future is as completely unknowable as some maintain. “Is it really true that we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be?” he asks. “One-third of jobs may well be automated but, equally, it won’t be the case that we won’t need knowledge any more. New skills are best created from a solid foundation – domain-specific knowledge. “You can’t be creative in the abstract.”

No, things aren’t perfect – the curriculum has become more intense, he concedes. Yes, it would be better if there were more time “off topic”, but knowledge does not stand still and the subject matter is increasingly demanding. “Today’s maths is hard, today’s science is richer,” he says. “What we expect of children is harder.”

International competition in education is also much more intense. A few decades ago, an interest in what happened in other countries’ schools was strictly for education nerds only – it hardly registered on the national debate. But in the 21st century globalised economy, the fear that the UK might lose the skills race to other nations with better systems is pervasive.

The PISA international student assessment rankings are pored over both in school corridors and the corridors of power, and high-scoring paragons such as Finland and Singapore are regularly cited as role models whose educational systems we should endeavour to emulate.

Of course, one can always learn from observing the ways that other societies do things. But the high-achieving examples of Finland and Singapore – almost polar opposites in approach as they are – really just show us that there is no single right way of achieving good results.

The real risk of playing this exciting international game could be that we fail to ask whether its rules are still fit for purpose. Sir Antony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham (and formerly the headteacher of Brighton College and master of Wellington College) believes this is the case.

“At present, we have a factory education system across the world that equates intelligence with the passing of tests and exams. This 20th century mentality is failing to meet the needs of employees and society and is producing a huge number of young people with mental health problems.”

What then do the UK’s universities make of schools’ output – the 18- and 19-year-old students enrolling in higher education? Are they the stressed and over-crammed individuals that Seldon suggests, or well rounded and stable human beings ready and eager to learn more?

As well as being an award-winning author and journalist, Will Hutton has been principal of Hertford College Oxford for the past nine years and is entering his final few months in the post. He is generally impressed by the school-leavers he sees.

“The kids here are really well educated,” he says. “They haven’t got here through grade inflation. They work really hard. They take it more seriously. The ‘raw material’ is high quality. The question is: can they think?” he says. In some cases academic staff have to encourage students to adopt a fresh approach to be ready for the demands of higher education.

At Oxbridge, where the number of places has not been greatly expanded, the student experience is still a privileged and perhaps rarified one. At some other universities, Hutton observes, where there has been a significant expansion of places, the experience is not as good as it should be. But a university degree is not the right option for everyone, he adds.

It’s right that we should aim for 50 per cent of school leavers going to university, says Simons. But for those who do not, the picture is not a happy one. “At 16, there is a very clear gilded path to higher education – for some.” he says. “We have one of the world’s best higher education systems and, sadly, one of the world’s worst further education systems.”

Lack of vocational paths

While there are clearly some successes in further education (FE) the system is, Simons believes, poor overall. Funding for FE has, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, been cut more sharply than any other part of the education system. There has been a real-term decline of 8 per cent in spending per pupil since 2010-11, and the comparison with school funding is increasingly stark. In 1990, spending per learner was 50 per cent higher in FE than in secondary schools. Now it is around 8 per cent lower. “It’s a staggering discrepancy,” he says.

Change could be coming, however. A review into post-18 education published last year focused on the underfunding of FE, calling for an increase in funding of £3bn as well as a reduction in student tuition fees. There are other education gaps. The number of adult learners is at its lowest for 10 years, according to a survey carried out by the Learning and Work Institute. Funding for adult education fell by 47 per cent in the same period. Only one in three people had taken part in learning in the past three years, according to the Adult Participation Survey, with working- class adults and those who left school at 16 less likely to take part in learning.

This lack of a vocational “middle paths” feeds an ongoing skills shortage. Never mind providing the skills for tomorrow, in many sectors there aren’t enough skilled workers to do the jobs that are needed today. According to the latest Talent Shortage Survey by Manpower Group – Closing the Skills Gap: What UK Workers Want in 2020 – 23 per cent of UK employers were unable to find the people they needed last year.

Electricians, welders and mechanics were most in demand, while healthcare, accounting and finance, management and teaching were also problematic areas. The companies worst affected by talent shortages were larger companies with more than 250 employees, of which over half (51 per cent) reported problems. Only 21 per cent of SMEs (with fewer than 10 employees) said filling vacancies was difficult.

Apprenticeships are a powerful tool that could help employers to tackle both current shortages and meet their prospective future needs. But the UK’s track record here is also patchy. The government introduced the apprenticeship levy with the aim of encouraging a greater take-up of this option. But it was revealed recently that around a quarter of the funding made available for apprenticeship training has been handed back to the government.

Figures obtained by the BBC from the Education and Skills Funding Agency showed that around 5,000 employers in England had let their apprenticeship funds (raised by the apprenticeship levy) expire between May and December 2019. Around £400m in funding was given back in total.

There is some better news from around the country. The insurance firm Aviva has 430 levy-funded apprenticeships. And energy firm EDF has trained more than 500 apprentices so far at the new Hinkley Point site. There are more than 25 apprenticeship schemes across the whole business. Other businesses to pursue the apprenticeship route successfully include Jaguar Land Rover, BAE Systems, PwC and Marks and Spencer. But the picture remains mixed.

Related to this rather binary “university or nothing” system is the question of social mobility, or rather the lack thereof. A report last year from the government’s Social Mobility Commission found that social mobility in the UK has been “virtually stagnant” since 2014, with the economic and employment prospects of children largely dependent on those of their parents. And while you can’t entirely blame the education system, it clearly isn’t doing much to help address the situation. According to Professor Stephen Machin of the London School of Economics: “Education has not been the great leveller. It’s either done nothing for social mobility or it has reinforced existing inequalities.”

As Duncan Exley reported in his recent book The End of Aspiration? Social Mobility and our Children’s Fading Prospects, in the UK you are 11 times more likely to become severely deprived if you have low levels of educational attainment than if you have a high level of education (Office for National Statistics figures).

It all circles back to the overriding question – what do we want our education system to achieve? Is it all about providing oven-ready employees who can get straight to work meeting the commercial needs of the future? Or is it to prepare young people to function well, flourish even, in the modern world. To give them the best possible start. To allow them to do well and progress both at work and in life more generally?

Hopefully the latter leads to the former – but either way, if we are going to meet those future skills needs, close the attainment gap and continue to develop happy, healthy and productive people, we need to encourage our kids to ask questions as well as pass exams.

As Dr Prachi Shah, a researcher at the University of Michigan, told The Guardian recently: “Promoting curiosity in children, especially those from environments of economic disadvantage, may be an important, under-recognised way to address the achievement gap. Promoting curiosity is a foundation for early learning that we should be emphasising more when we look at academic achievement.”

There is clearly plenty more that could be done to make our education system ready for the demands of the 21st century. The question is, do we have the ambition and the imagination to take on the challenge? Free coffee for life if the answer is yes.

Image credit: Visual China Group/Getty Images

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