We need more investment in practical skills, say employers

Big companies believe the UK's economic recovery may depend on improving the balance between academic and vocational education...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Here at MT we're written a lot lately about Britain's looming skills gap - the lack of the higher-level skills UK plc will need in the coming decade. But our skills problem actually runs much deeper, as a new survey reminds us: 87% of the large firms questioned by education services provider Pearson said the UK economic recovery was at risk without more investment in practical skills. Their argument, it seems, is that there's too much focus on academic pursuits and not enough on workplace-friendly skills like communication, team-working and IT. And one thing's for sure: unless the education system meets the needs of end-users, i.e. our leading businesses, the private sector won't be able to create the jobs and wealth needed to power that recovery...

That certainly doesn't seem to be happening at the moment, if this survey is anything to go by. Only 16% felt that the UK education system was providing young people with the right mix of academic knowledge and the kind of practical skills they'll need in the workplace (almost three-quarters think it's wrong that subjects like IT aren't part of the core curriculum, for instance). 87% said the UK's future growth depended on greater investment in those practical skills - while just 3% thought focusing on academic subujects was the right way forward.

More vocational training is one answer, they suggest: 81% said students would benefit from being taught vocational subjects alongside academic ones, and that it was a mistake to see the two as contradictory. As Pearson points out, this hardly chimes with the Government-commissioned Wolf Report on vocational education, which suggests limiting practical learning to 20% of the school timetable, while also limiting its impact on school league tables (and if schools aren't incentivised to take it seriously, why should they bother?). 'The message from businesses is simple, says Pearson UK chairman Rod Bristow. 'Don’t undervalue vocational education, don’t downgrade it, don’t sideline it.'

To be fair, the Government does appear to be on the right lines. It has recognised that there's a problem, which is an important (and not to be underestimated) start. As the Wolf report shows, it seems to think vocational training is (at least part of) the answer. And it has shown a willingness to listen to businesses' concerns. The question is, will its eventual reforms go far enough? Or, as is often the way in politics, will they end up being watered down due to pressure from vested interests and end up pleasing nobody? Let's hope not, because there's an awful lot at stake here.

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