A pro-business government also needs to be a pro-education government – specifically, pro the education that equips students with the skills of the present and the future. The yawning gap between graduates and unfilled job roles suggest the UK’s current system, like many around the world, is struggling to achieve either.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that spending on pupils has fallen by 8% in real terms since 2010. Schools are now so underfunded, as the collective action taken by head teachers this month highlights, that one South London school has just £10 per year per student for ‘basics’ like books; head teachers are cleaning bathrooms; mental health services are being cut (just as teen mental health reaches new levels of crisis); classes are being merged and subjects are being restricted. New awareness of how soaring school exclusion rates and scandalously over-priced yet totally ineffectual specialist units for troubled students are fueling the knife crime crisis in the UK casts further shadows over a system that creates the foundation of British prosperity. This, at a moment when wholesale change to our education is needed if our next generation of talent is to cut it against their global peers.
So what do we know? We know that the as-yet unquantified, but significant, forces of change include slowbalisation, the rise of the green, economy, aging, urbanization, and geo-political instability. We know that IQ in our youngsters has been steadily falling for decades, thought to be due to technology disrupting cognitive development. We know that a vocational or traditional approach is no longer enough: only one tenth of existing jobs are expected to grow over the next decade. most of the jobs of tomorrow have yet to be imagined. We know that a skills-based approach is the only way forward. The good news is that despite the continuing volatility, these skills are increasingly clear.
A significant recent study by Pearson and Nesta found that interpersonal skills (‘teaching, social perceptiveness and coordination, as well as related knowledge, such as psychology and anthropology’), higher order cognitive skills (‘originality, fluency of ideas and active learning.’) and systems-skills (‘the ability to recognise, understand and act on interconnections and feedback loops in sociotechnical systems’) – judgment and decision making – will be the high-value skills of the future economy. These distinctly human skills – creativity, problems solving, collaboration and communication are what the excellent Thomas Friedman calls ‘the massive, undervalued human assets to unlock. Yet experts currently see a 40 year knowledge gap between new need and existing practice. From my own experience preparing young people for job interviews as part of the Million Jobs campaign, it’s plain that these skills remain in short supply, and young people’s futures remain imperiled.
New models are starting to answer the call. The London Interdisciplinary School – the first new UK university to open in 40 years, backed by McKinsey and Virgin among other forward-thinking businesses – promises a revolutionary approach to both reskilling students and repurposing work to meaningfully address the biggest challenges of our time. Offering just one degree that combines unprecedented theoretical breadth with critical skills and paid-for work placements, it will create cohorts of polymath problem solvers equipped to navigate complex systems and bring multidisciplinary expertise to the most deep-rooted systemic issues we face, from malaria to knife crime to climate change. It’s calling exceptional students from every background to join as its first 2020 cohort. But what goes in must come out. To ensure new Institutions like this can truly draw from wisdom across UK society, we must fix the issues at ground level.