The problem of low productivity in Britain is at the heart of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and after the woeful predictions about the economy in last week’s budget, the Government is hoping to change the narrative and regain the initiative. NFER agree with the Government that ‘investment in education is vital to address challenges facing the economy.’
The focus on skills and STEM education is both welcome and essential, but high-level technical skills need to be underpinned by good maths and science teaching throughout school. This is not an issue that suddenly appears at 18 or 16, or at 11 years of age. While the number of qualified teachers in English state primary schools has increased by 13 per cent since 2010, the number in secondary schools has declined by six per cent. Good teaching demands good teachers and the Government should be concerned that around a quarter of teachers are now considering leaving the profession (compared to 17 per cent in 2015). Most worrying for the industrial strategy is that the highest levels of dissatisfaction are among science teachers, with 31 per cent considering leaving their job. More than 10 per cent of maths teachers leave the profession each year, the highest rate among EBacc subjects. Addressing the concerns of this group must be a priority if the strategy is to be effective in providing a pipeline of suitably qualified young people to boost productivity in the priority sectors.
The regional disparities highlighted in the strategy, in skills and industrial outputs, can only be addressed by tackling the regional variation in education levels across England. A place at a good school is the most effective way to address the shortfall in basic skills for children of school age. The strategy maps productivity by region and it is not coincidental that the regions of highest productivity coincide with the areas with the best educational outcomes. In line with other research, NFER analysis shows that whilst nationally the proportion of good schools in England is high, there is a very high degree of variability in the numbers of underperforming schools across regions. This disparity is aggravated by teacher supply issues, with coastal rural areas seeing the highest rate of teachers leaving the sector entirely.
In March, the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, said that he wanted to create ‘genuine parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational qualifications. This is a noble ambition and one that NFER would whole-heartedly endorse. A recent survey of parents of teenagers shows that, while parents’ knowledge of non-academic qualifications is increasing, they still know more about academic qualifications. There has been so much recent change to 14 – 19 educational routes that many parents and teachers have not been able to keep up to date with current and local education alternatives and employment opportunities. It will therefore be important to explain to teachers and parents as well as young people the distinctive type of education that T levels can offer.
Our work on what constitutes effective careers guidance underlines the importance of young people and parents/carers having access to good information about the options available and we welcome the commitment in the strategy to enabling students to make an informed choice about their future pathways. However, the suggestion that ‘school and college performance measures;’ be used to boost the standing of vocational qualifications is not clear and must be carefully calibrated if it is to have the impact intended. To quote the industrial strategy paper, “We will also update school and college performance measures to ensure that students can make an informed choice between technical or academic education in time for the introduction of the first T levels, recognising them as equally valued routes.”
The strategy asks many of the right questions and some of the initiatives suggested are promising, but the inadequate sums of money proposed to implement them will hardly scratch the surface. If the Government is serious about upskilling Britain, it needs more than good intentions. It needs to put its money where its mouth is.