The last three years in particular have been hugely difficult in the education space, from the impacts of coronavirus to political instability which meant we went through more education secretaries than meals there are in the day. Now we seem to have more permanent personnel, it’s time to really push government for long-term educational strategy. Education seems a no-brainer for economic investment, education being one of the few ways to basically guarantee increased economic activity and productivity. How much we invest now will determine the life chances of our young people, and ultimately of the capabilities of the UK. Good education doesn’t come cheap, but ultimately to achieve a high-skill high growth economy is exactly what we need to focus on.
An absolutely key priority must be expanding nursery places; coronavirus has made it untenable for many nursery providers to continue, and nursery helps to settle children into full-time education. Also in times of economic hardship parents are more likely to need to work increased hours or potentially even to work multiple jobs, so the government must step in to provide them the flexibility to do this. Nursery is a great place for children to start learning how to interact with others, as well as developing their creativity.
For primary and secondary pupils, many will still potentially be months behind due to missed schooling and disrupted learning as a result of the pandemic, a legacy that will continue to live on for years to come. Interventions need to be targeted to try to plug these gaps, including one-to-one tutoring so that each pupil gets the focus they need. A big challenge here will be time, specifically that students shouldn’t miss out on subjects deemed ‘less important’ so they can get additional maths or English tuition – subjects like drama and music shouldn’t be undervalued in the transferable skills they give, as well as the fact these subjects have so much value to offer in their own right. It is all well and good for government to speak against these supposedly ‘soft’ subjects, but a world without a flourishing drama and music scene doesn’t sound much fun to me. The UK is known as a powerhouse of the arts, and any intervention we take should not forget this.
An area that is particularly undervalued in national discourse but that I think is important to focus on is skills for life. Understandably with teachers under so much pressure this subject is given little thought; many times I would attend these lessons with cover teachers, or with teachers using pre-prepared lesson plans they had no time to review themselves. At its best, this subject could actually be one of the most engaging and fulfilling. It should be about supporting students to explore their pathways, signposting how they can develop their skills, teaching them about the basics of finance like budgeting and credit as well as giving the space for students to reflect on their own progress. Half of learning is learning how to learn, and if we don’t equip students with this basic toolkit then these students could be permanently held back. Skills for life feeling a low priority potentially reflects how exam-focused education has become, all about jumping through hoops rather than the joy of learning or the value education can bring to the lives of individuals. Let’s genuinely use schools as a place to equip students with skills for life, giving them a toolkit to thrive and succeed.
For the long-term health of our education system, we need to support our teachers further. With nearly 1 in 2 teachers wanting to quit in the next five years and many schools continuously advertising vacancies, something has to change so that we have the people we need in our schools. I remember in secondary school our computing department was constantly struggling to recruit teachers, ultimately leading to it being removed as an option for some students and really depleting the quality of learning delivered. The future is digital, with the growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Computing is exactly the place we want our students, to be understanding these trends, reflecting on what this means for our society as well as how to tackle fake news. We can’t remain a world leader in technology if we aren’t even teaching it in our schools, and this is going to involve reviewing teacher workload as well as their pay.
Entrepreneurship is something we absolutely should be fostering in our education system. 96% of employers are companies who have less than 500 workers, and is where the majority of the UK’s economic prosperity comes from. While it has many downsides, our economy is becoming increasingly ‘gig’ driven, individuals working multiple jobs or fostering businesses on the side around their man work in the hope of being self-employed full-time in the long-term. Schooling should embrace rather than ignore these trends, inspiring the next generation to dream big with their ideas. Many employers speak of the benefits of entrepreneurship, and is a reason why Octopus Energy helps their employees to start their own business – either they will be successful businesses which will help the UK’s prosperity or the employee will have learnt many valuable skills they can bring back to the workplace. The Peter Jones Foundation’s Tycoon Enterprise competition is one example of trying to integrate this into the curriculum while providing the economic firepower to do so, but these opportunities need to more widely advertised and more widely embraced to have substantial impact.
And for universities, the impact of the cost of living cannot be ignored. If students cannot afford to eat properly or to keep the heating on, they are not going to deliver their best results. Increasing undergraduate maintenance loans significantly below inflation will only lead to more students struggling, or force many to work unsustainable hours to fund their studies. Funding is additionally an issue at a postgraduate level, masters particularly being quite difficult to get funded in some cases meaning students have to work multiple part-time jobs to make it feasible. On a national level, there has been discourse about funders focused too much on ensuring research delivers high returns or is likely to succeed, really narrowing the risk-taking of researchers so potentially limiting the room for innovation. So students need more funding, and our education systems needs to support individuals to take more risks.
Education will be under the spotlight in the next few years, and the system is facing a number of structural issues that need confronting. Skills have been squeezed out of the education system, while many are still struggling from the impacts of the pandemic. We need to recruit and retain teachers, particularly in areas of long-term growth like computing. Let’s support our young people to be entrepreneurial in mindset – it doesn’t mean they have to found their own businesses, but they’ll be equipped with the skillset to make their own choices. And at a university level, students desperately need more funding. High quality education is never cheap but worth every penny. The time is now to act decisively to support the next generation to thrive.