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Tooling Up for the Future

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Neil Carmichael

Chief Executive of UK-China Culture and Education Corporation Promotion Centre Ltd

Neil Carmichael is a former chair of the Education Select Committee and founder of the All Party Group on Education, Governance and Leadership. In addition to this, he is also a Commissioner on Curia’ “Levelling Up” Commission

Beginning in the 1950s, through collecting and interrogating economic data, two emerging trends became the subjects of intense political debate, and they continue to concern policymakers. One is the economic productivity problem – today, according to the OECD, the UK is some 25% less productive than Germany – and the other is the disparity between regions, creating conditions for social deprivation. These challenges are about how we value and develop human resources with all genders included, especially important to emphasise for Inernational Women’s Day.

Policy tools to address challenges

Governments of both political complexions recognise these problems and have attempted to tackle them. Each decade has seen an influx of ideas and initiatives. Often, changes in Government structure have characterised political responses, as the 1960s appointment of Lord Hailsham as ‘Minister for the North East’, Regional Development Agencies during the Blair/Brown years, Harold Wilson’s creation of the Department of Employment and Productivity, and, most recently, Michael Gove’s current perch at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (as it has become) all illustrate.

Other familiar policy tools include liberalising the labour market, increasing market competition, reducing taxation to incentivise business, generous use of regional aid¾particularly during the 1970s¾deregulation (although this has proved to be a double-edged sword for some sectors, including banking investment in infrastructure) and the use of nationalisation or privatisation to effect change in the larger monopoly businesses.

Despite these efforts, the productivity gap between the UK and similar economies, and the regional differences, are stubbornly wide some seventy years after their stuttering diagnosis.

Brexit and the future

Joining the European Union (EU) was seen as a solution to the UK’s economic woes, as well as an answer to United States Secretary of State, Dean Acheson’s “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” conundrum. The economic arguments for joining Europe acquired added force as both Germany and France outpaced the UK, decade after decade. As the consequences of Brexit begin to bite hard, another question arises: why did the UK not become more resilient and agile while it was a member of the EU, as virtually all other member states have; and, paradoxically, did these failures ultimately pave the way for Brexit?

A clue to help answer this fundamental question can be found in Leipzig, Lower Saxony, or doubtless, in other parts of Europe. When visiting Leipzig, this author came across a large and modern Porsche car factory where, as he learnt, the supply chain included schools, colleges and universities in order for the human resources department to secure all the necessary skills and professions as required for continued growth. In the same factory, proper consideration was given to the comfort and convenience of workers. Obviously, there are shining examples of good practice in the UK but there are also less impressive employment and management practices.

Four education-themed solutions are called for but, as an overall starting point, good education must be available to everybody and, for as long as necessary, lifelong learning must be embedded into our culture. This is not just about continued professional development but a new attitude to embrace technology, science, artificial intelligence and, crucially, imagination.

Education as a solution

The first solution is about access. Here, policymakers must remove all barriers to education. An obvious step in the right direction is to support families by providing childcare where required. Moreover, such provision should not be a missed opportunity but, instead, early years education – from birth to six years old – must be of the highest quality.

In response to the Leipzig story above, the second solution should be around the interface between education and work. Repeatedly, businesses have asked for problem-solving abilities, strong communication skills and adaptability in the people entering employment. This requires must than just a few weeks of ‘work experience’ or businesspeople being selected to be school governors. It requires a new framework, not dissimilar to the compulsory and statutory trade chambers in Germany charged with the task of matching the throughput of education with the demands of employers.

City and regional mayors have already made an impact, but the third solution is about ensuring cities and ‘city regions’ have real economic power and can become effective competitors nationally and internationally. A measure of their ultimate success will be about the quality of leaders they attract and retain but another indicator should be how their universities and colleges have gone beyond ordinary stakeholder engagement in order to influence investment, trade and culture.

A fourth ‘must-do’ is to challenge several aspects of the education system. An example is the reluctance to move away from GCSEs – the UK is one of the few western countries with such an assessment and qualification method. The underlying obsession with academic achievement, as opposed to the developing of skills, is hampering the UK’s ability to develop the workforce it requires.

It is time to value people, understand their ambitions and equip them with the ability to fulfil their lives while enriching those of others.

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