ukces-report-16-coverClaims that the main obstacle to improved productivity is a “skills deficit”, which schools need to address, were debunked by Richard Hatcher (BCU) at the October meeting of the West Midlands New Economics Group.  Despite evidence to the contrary, will Combined Authorities, driven by funding and governance imperatives, try to put pressure on schools?

Though there is a national shortage of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, Professor Hatcher presented statistics – running counter to ‘received wisdom’ – which invalidate the claims of lower educational achievement and employment figures in the region, made recently by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

Hatcher’s PowerPoint slides showed evidence published by the government’s UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ (UKCES) Employer Skills Survey, which interviews more than 90,000 employers and reports every two years. It provided little support for the “skills deficit” claim. The real problem, Hatcher argued, is a structurally low skill, low wage, low investment economy. Industry is failing to train its workforce as it once did as a matter of course.

A BBC review of this report emphasised that only a minority of employers report skills gaps. Most workplaces report that they have a fully proficient workforce with no skills gaps. The ESS identified a large proportion of employers who feel they underutilise their workers’ skills, with 4.3 million people (16% of the workforce) over-skilled or over-qualified for their current roles. The survey also provided insight into skills mismatches, identifying members of employers’ existing workforces who were not “fully proficient” in their current jobs.

A local reference: Jaguar Land Rover, based in the WMCA area, is a case in point: it has an annual investment of approximately £2.75 billion a year but faces a shortage of engineers, designers and technicians. The explanation for this, offered by Begley et al (Coventry, 2015, paywall) puts into context a claim by the Chief Inspector of Schools that there is a need to improve vocational training.

Industry is failing to train its workforce as it once did as a matter of course

In part responsibility lies with the employers themselves: it is “a legacy of the engineering sector being locked into a low-skills equilibrium caused by a long-term failure to educate and train its workforce” (p594). It is also the result in part of the nationwide failure of government to ensure sufficient qualified maths and science teachers.

skilled-logoWhat employers want from “non-academic” school leavers are basic skills (the three Rs, now redefined as functional skills: literacy, numeracy and ICT” ), “soft skills” and positive attitudes to work.

But the Conservative government has a very different project for schools, exemplified by the dominance of the narrow E-Bacc (five academic subjects).

This contradiction creates a space for “employability” programmes such as Skilled and Ready – more detail here. In that context it also remains to be seen to what extent schools, especially those which are not high-performing in terms of government targets, will turn to “employability” programmes such as that offered by Skilled and Ready, and the extent to which Combined Authorities may promote them.

Hatcher predicts that as Combined Authorities spread and develop they will add fuel to the debate about the relationship between schools and the labour market, resulting in more questioning of the E-Bacc curriculum and more pressure to validate a pre-vocational and vocational pathway. This will also open up the opportunity to argue the case for a unified and critical common core secondary curriculum for all.