Robert Halfon: Our education system is ill prepared for the jobs for the future – and it needs to adapt pretty fast.

21 Apr

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

In an eye-catching ConHome article, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb recently emphasised the need to maintain school standards as we navigate the wreckage of the pandemic.

There was much to like about Gibb’s piece. He has long extolled the virtues of aspiration, hard work and resilience – and he has worked with laser precision to raise school standards.

I greatly admire his and the Government’s work. The proportion of pupils passing the Year 1 phonics screening check increased from 58 per cent in 2012, to 82 per cent in 2019. We are stripping out qualifications that hold no real currency.

We now have a system that encourages schools to innovate and raise their games. Our free schools programme continues to produce gems like King’s College London Mathematics School. New, more rigorous apprenticeship standards are replacing older frameworks. And we have some of the finest universities in the world.

However, nestled in the long-grass of Gibb’s article was this astonishing claim: “We must strongly resist the calls from those who talk about ripping up our curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ or to make it solely about preparing pupils for work.”

Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more.

While education wears many hats, its primary purpose must surely be employment.

Without employment, we lose the means to meet our basic needs. The Government loses its ability to raise taxes and pay for key public services. We seize to trade – to swap goods, services and ideas. Employment also shapes our identities – it gives us structure, a sense of purpose and dignity, and a means of building new friendships.

Given the paramount role of employment at the root of society, we should always do what we can to stimulate good jobs. That means creating the right economic climate for investment and growth, and making sure people have the right skills.

Yet the latter is increasingly uncertain. Why? Because the march of the robots is well and truly in motion. Doomsday predictions about mass unemployment are off the mark, and revolutions in robotics, artificial intelligence and other areas will produce new jobs – but only if people have the right skills to do them.

The pace of change is electrifying, too. According to a study by PwC, 28 per cent of jobs taken by 16-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s. NVIDIA, a superchip company in my Harlow constituency, told me that coding will soon be redundant in its workforce as software begins to write itself.

As our labour market thunders towards the digital age, we must urgently reconsider how our education system can support the skills of the future.

Currently, it falls short.

A knowledge-rich curriculum with a narrow focus on traditional subjects, and a tired system of assessment, can only get us so far.

Yes, knowledge is important – people need to reach a certain level to contextualise their learning and development. But skills-based learning must not be crowded out by overemphasising this.

The Department for Education’s Employer Skills Survey, the CBI, the OECD and the World Economic Forum all suggest that the jobs of the future will place much stronger emphasis on skills such as collaboration, communication, problem solving, emotional awareness, creativity and entrepreneurship. Time and again, my parliamentary committee has heard the same.

There must be enough space to develop these skills – and, crucially, the aptitude to adapt and retrain as knowledge quickly fades (as will increasingly become the case); currently, we don’t spend enough time on these things.

This harms us all, but it deals disadvantaged pupils the heaviest blow. For these children, the current approach has reached its limits: while the GCSE attainment gap (the difference in academic development between them and their peers) closed from 20.4 months in 2011 to 18.4 months in 2017, progress has ground to a screeching halt (between 2017 and 2019, it remained stuck at 18.4 months).

We must therefore change what, and how, we teach our children – an engaging form of pedagogy that builds in more applied and interdisciplinary learning. Highly-rated schools like the XP School in Doncaster, and School 21 in Stratford, give us a glimpse into how this might be done.

The XP School uses an interactive model of learning that breaks down conventional silos between subjects; pupils learn in more personalised ways which are brought to life through fieldwork in their local community – and they hone essential skills by adding oral presentations, projects, portfolio work, practicals and group assignments to written exams. School 21 places a strong premium on verbal skills – the spoken equivalent of literacy – in its curriculum, with impressive results and is ranked “Outstanding” by Ofsted.

A Levels should also be replaced with a Baccalaureate-style of qualification. Our post-GCSE education is currently very narrow when compared to successful education systems across the world, where most pupils in upper secondary education study more subjects. It is not helpful to expect pupils to make life-changing decisions that shape their career paths at 16, and it is also not sensible to ask pupils to study such a narrow range of subjects from then on.

We also don’t push basic skills enough after 16 – which goes some way to explaining why a third of young people in England still leave education without being able to read, write and count properly. One way or another, all pupils should be doing some sort of numeracy and literacy development until they are 18, even if those skills are more functionally entwined.

Lastly, pupils need far better access to vocational paths, if it is clear that their strengths and passions lie in those areas. In many other advanced economies, technical routes are a well-respected, and well-oiled, part of the educational machinery that exists.

In Switzerland, for example, around two thirds of students in the final part of their secondary education choose a vocational pathway – mostly doing courses that combine classroom learning and on-the-job training.

Moreover, in Canada, provincial governments have broadened the curriculum to good effect. For instance, in British Columbia, the Dogwood Diploma includes a blend of mandatory credits and optional units, taken over three years (15-18).

Pupils take English (or French, if their native language), maths, social studies, science and PE – and then choose a careers programme and either a fine art or an applied skills subject. The government of British Columbia cited research showing that students who focus on areas that interest them are more engaged in school and more likely to complete their courses.

It isn’t just because other countries have adopted a Baccalaureate model for education that we must follow suit, but it actually improves outcomes. Not only does it boost access to participation in Higher Education (and is linked to higher retention rates), but the University of Melbourne concluded in one paper that the International Baccalaureate (IB) has significant longer-term benefits:

“For many people, the IB has considerably influenced and shaped their working lives. This was evident in reflections on how the IB had provided people with particular skills or dispositions, such as understandings of cultural difference, the capacity for analytical and critical thinking, the development of high-level written skills, and the acquisition of foreign languages. These factors were noted as having directly and positively impacted on their working lives.”

John W. Gardner – the Republican US reformer who served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1960s – once said: “All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

That sentiment is increasingly true of our education system today.

We must act now so that, rather than be deposed by the future of work, our children can embrace it confidently and climb the ladder of opportunity.

Jeremy Quin: The Government’s defence investment ensures a modern, persistent and effective approach to future threats

31 Mar

Jeremy Quin is the MP for Horsham and Minister for Defence Procurement.

It has been an important two weeks for the UK’s foreign, defence and security policy. The Prime Minister set out through the Integrated Review the most significant reappraisal of UK foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, including a commitment to sustaining our strategic advantage through science and technology.

Last week’s Defence in a Competitive Age backs this up, signalling the biggest shift in defence policy in a generation. The Government’s vital investment in defence, amounting to an extra £24 billion over four years from today’s levels, ensures we will equip our Armed Forces to be modern, persistent and effective in deterring the threats of the future.

The following day through DSIS (the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy) we announced further reforms to ensure that this investment supports not just the Armed Forces, to which we owe so much, but invests in those who support them. The £85 billion we are investing in defence equipment and support over the next four years will drive not only the success of our Armed Forces but opportunity, capability and prosperity throughout the UK. 

Our defence sector is already world-renowned. Directly and indirectly it employs more than 200,000 across the UK. It is the world’s second largest global exporter of defence goods and services, helping support our allies and partners overseas. It generates valuable skills and technology, and is one of the many binding forces of our successful Union. Frigates are made in Scotland, satellites in Belfast, our next generation Ajax armoured vehicles in Wales and fighter aircraft in the north of England.

But we must do more to unlock the vast potential of this sector and drive the research, the skills and investment that will enhance prosperity, keep us secure and help us thrive as a science superpower.

To do so we have ended the policy of “global competition by default’ to better deliver our strategic goals. Of course competition has an important role to play, as will international collaboration. There will also be occasions when, to meet critical needs, purchases will be made from our friends and allies.

However we will be adopting a nuanced and sophisticated approach to procurement with a focus on on-shore capabilities and asking key questions. What more can we secure from this investment? How will this contribute to our science superpower status, level up the whole UK and deliver on skills, capability and export success? We will continue to welcome companies based overseas who are prepared to invest in maintaining the industrial capability we need onshore.

In the future you can expect greater integration between government, industry and academia. Our approach to combat air shows what this can achieve. A £2 billion investment, leveraging further industrial contributions, driving world-leading research and capabilities – and creating 2,500 apprenticeships – will deliver the future of combat air

We are investing £6.6 billion into R&D to support next-generation capabilities, from space satellites and automation to artificial intelligence and novel weapons. A clear signal to our industrial partners.

We will be more focussed on exports. For the first time in a generation we are working with our close friends in Australia and Canada on highly sophisticated UK warships. Our multipurpose Type 31 frigate has been designed with export in mind. We are determined to spark a renaissance in British shipbuilding, underpinned by UK orders but focussed on the huge export potential in maritime. Similar export opportunities across the waterfront of defence.

Lastly, DSIS will make procurement more agile, pulling through technology fast to the frontline. By driving improvements inside MOD and reforming our approach to suppliers, we will shift the dial. We are introducing “social value” to our procurements and will be doing more to help our imaginative SMEs – the lifeblood of defence – to continue their record of securing more of our defence spend.

So DSIS will make a huge difference to our country. It will ensure our people continue to have the right kit. It will contribute to the advanced skills and capabilities our nation requires as a science superpower. And it will fire up the engines of prosperity in every corner of our United Kingdom.

The Armed Forces always deliver for our country. DSIS will ensure that our investment not only secures our peace and security; its benefits will also be felt in our industrial heartlands, building greater prosperity in every part of the Union.

Jonathan Clark: We cannot assume education will go back to normal after Covid

24 Mar

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

In 1990 nobody set out to abolish typewriters. By 2000 they were gone: not because of some pressure group, some campaign, some commission of inquiry, some Act of Parliament. They vanished naturally, as we discovered a better, faster, cheaper way of doing the same thing.

The problem with the current controversy over the impact of Covid on examinations and on schools is that it assumes that after the present crisis, education will return to “normal”. Even when we are pitted against Nature, we assume that all we need do is apply the ideal of sustainability and we will buy security. Sustainability is a marvellous ideal, but it has just one problem: nothing is sustainable. Everything changes. Everything is temporary.

The reality is that both the main exam options – teacher assessment and the public, anonymised examination – are not eternal truths but historical formations, devised at particular times and places for particular reasons, and destined to change as society changes. Students in US universities are given marks by their professors; dons at Oxford and Cambridge are horrified to learn this, and expect their students to sit in rows in exam halls, their scripts identified only by a number and even then double-marked, ideally by dons who had not taught them.

Each examination system has strengths and weaknesses, and the debate is a matter of choosing the least bad option. The problem with teacher assessment is that the teachers award marks for a whole range of reasons, some discreditable, some idealistic; but whatever their stance towards their pupils the teachers are also assessing the effectiveness of their own teaching. They are, in part but inevitably, marking their own homework.

Every system can be gamed, and teacher assessment results in grade inflation just as democratically-elected politicians result in monetary inflation. Teachers seek the credit, and the rewards, for their steadily improving performance. Pupils and parents are delighted with the higher grades, unaware that the jobs market will silently reward inflated grades differently from gold-standard ones. If you were to be operated on for a major ailment, would you choose a surgeon who had done really well in genuine exams? Or one who might have done really well, had the world been a better place than it is?

Meanwhile, whatever the parochial controversies, the world changes, and Covid has accelerated developments that were afoot anyway. University graduate seminars are now almost all held as Zoom conferences: once Covid is vanquished by vaccines, will they revert to face-to face meetings? Some will; most won’t. Schools have been compelled to go over to online teaching, just as many office workers now work from home. Will either go back to the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday routine? Some will; others won’t.

Many university courses are now available free on the internet, and provide education, of a sort, to vast numbers around the world. I still favour the model of the Cambridge supervision, one don teaching one student at a time, who had written an essay. But in this I am antediluvian: even I know that the world has changed, and will change further.

What about exams? These, too, are an historical formation. In the seventeenth century Cambridge students were examined orally (naturally, in Latin) by a don seated on a three-legged stool, who was nicknamed Mr Tripos (the name survived the thing). Jobs (mostly in the Church) were awarded by personal patronage.

In the nineteenth century growing state bureaucracies demanded more impersonal measures of performance, and written exams came to prominence. Into the twentieth century the bureaucracies grew ever larger, and the tyranny of the written exam was imposed on ever larger percentages of the population in the name of “meritocracy” (in reality, a system that was gamed like all the others).

Today the pendulum is swinging back, and the world of work has become the world of woke: students are rewarded more and more on the basis of their values.

Meanwhile, what is being examined? Early seventeenth-century students might be asked whether the Pope was Antichrist, or whether the sun orbited the earth. In the late eighteenth century they might be asked to compose Latin hexameters. In the nineteenth, to write prose essays about the religions of the Indian empire. In the twentieth, they needed to use a slide rule. Finally the demand for an exam system that could be claimed not to discriminate against minorities led to the dominance of right answers and even to multiple-choice questions, objective but largely worthless.

Meanwhile, for teenagers, life has moved on: learning has been replaced by Wikipedia accessed from cellphones, the slide rule by the pocket calculator.

State-owned schools, too, are historical formations and are now close to being a producer monopoly, their teachers an estate of the realm. It is becoming ever harder to defend an exam system which increasingly squeezes out originality, just as it is becoming harder to defend school and university teachers who have become politically monochrome. Something has to give. Covid may be the catalyst.

All this changes again with the rise of AI, the revolution that we saw coming but still ignored. More and more teaching will be done not by inadequate schoolteachers struggling to control justifiably bored classes but by perfectly patient, consistently courteous, infinitely well-informed computer programmes accessed by students sitting alone and meeting their peers in the evenings. Individual choice is already everywhere in the ascendant. Students will visit physical schools sometimes, on some occasions, for some purposes; but daily attendance will be a thing of the past.

Superbly powerful computers will provide detailed and seemingly infallible judgments on student performance; and the nature of the exams will adapt to this new reality. Both old systems – teacher assessment and public, anonymised examinations – will fade away, like typewriters and steam locomotives. In this change there will be loss and gain. As to the former good functions of schools – inculcating politeness, mutual respect, co-operation, decency, loyalty, honour and all the rest – they have done this less and less well for years. Perhaps AI could do a better job. It will have to try.

But these changes will happen; and we would do better to anticipate the future than to defend in the last ditch the producer monopolies of the mid twentieth century. It would be interesting to see a government, of any political complexion, that would identify and row with the current instead of against it. In education as in healthcare, there is one reform which would have just that effect, automatically, and which is in itself neither of the Right nor of the Left. It can be summed up in one word: vouchers.

This article first appeared on the blog of the think tank Politeia.