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Beyond the Conservative Fringe

This year’s Conservative Party Conference was not short of fringe meetings discussing the growing skills gap and the potential impact of Brexit on the labour market. 

Titles such as a ‘Skills for the Future – is UK education in shape for the post-Brexit world?’ summed up a common theme running through events outside of the main hall.   The Association of Colleges, FE Week and the Education Policy Institute were among the many hosts, but the debate was not just driven by the education sector. Tory website Conservative Home jointly hosted representatives from the construction industry who explained how the skills deficit in the sector is one factor hindering new house builds.

As an attendee at party conferences for many years, I recall a time when fringe meetings that had ‘skills’ on the agenda didn’t attract huge audiences; at best, ‘corporate’ delegates would attend.  How times have changed. Many meetings were standing room only and alongside the corporate delegates were party members with a real interest in the skills debate.

Brexit aside, the drivers behind the mismatch of workforce skills and employer’s needs remain pretty much the same.  The lack of a credible careers service, poor engagement between schools and employers, the education climate that has made university the default route and just plain old academic snobbery, have all contrived to devalue and undermine the status of technical skills. 

Recently appointed Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, spoke at a number of fringe events. He recalled how, during his time as Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, he’d spoken to apprentices, who had pursued that ‘ladder of opportunity’, as he put it, but not thanks to receiving careers advice about this option.

Edge has been campaigning for some time now for a broader and more flexible curriculum to include technical and creative subjects, so I took the opportunity to pose the question to several event panels. Disappointingly, responses tended to be the same old platitudes. However, I am encouraged by a new face in the debate, Ann Milton, the current Skills and Apprenticeships Minister.

Asked what she would like to achieve during her time in her new post, she gave a very refreshing and practical response:

“Turn the dial on the balance between academic and vocational [education].”

She cited her own daughter as an example of a student who had achieved excellent academic results, but had opted for a vocational route after leaving school.

‘The school was very angry with her’, she said. 

It illustrates very well, how performance measure pressures on schools are affecting young people’s choices, limiting their options and perpetuating a synthetic divide between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ education.

The global digital economy demands technical expertise and workplace skills alongside a core of academic knowledge. If the fringe events at the Conservative Party conference are any indication, politicians, business and policy makers are beginning to recognise that the education system is failing to meet the needs of employers and young people.

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