With Brexit, the digital revolution and a widening skills gap between workers on the rise, is our education system flexible enough to nurture future generations and foster home-grown talent?
As the media and politicians are increasingly caught up in the logistics of Brexit negotiations, it is easy to forget that these logistics have implications. One implication being, if we are to leave the EU, how will we close the skills gap currently filled by skilled migrant workers?
In order to answer this question we must turn to education, and whether our education system is equipped to give the flexibility necessary for children to forge their path and find their strengths at different points in time. Currently, I would argue, it is not.
At young, formative ages, children in the UK have to decide whether to follow fixed vocational courses with clear end goals, or to follow traditional academic pathways to higher education. As it stands, university applications are at a record high, suggesting ever increasing numbers of young people see a university degree to carry the most weight in terms of forging a career. This belief is leaving the UK with a widening technical and vocational skills gap.
In 2015, in attempts to combat this disparity, David Cameron’s government pledged to deliver 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. Recently, strategic mergers in the Further Education (FE) sector, such as the acquisition by NCG (a not-for-profit provider of education and training) of Lewisham Southwark College, are providing scope for FE institutions to focus on quality and outcome rather than funding. Whilst these mergers mean colleges will play a significant role in delivering more apprenticeships, the increasing number of university applications suggests that the availability of vocational training alone is not going to solve the problem. It is clear that the current education policy in the UK is not meeting the demands of the economy, nor is it doing justice by our young people, who are facing tough, rigid choices when it comes to their education.
So, what can be done? The Edge Foundation – an independent education charity committed to raising the status of technical and professional education – have a suggestion. In a research report they published addressing this issue, they called for the implementation of a coherent, unified and holistic phase of education for 14-19 year olds which focuses on preparation for work. If such an approach were to be backed up by policy, more young people may feel encouraged and, arguably most importantly, supported enough to follow a vocational education route.
To see what such an approach might look like in practice, we can turn to a country that seems to have perfected flexibility in education – Finland. Unlike the UK, the flexible model of education in Finland does not expect children to make binding decisions about their education early on. Instead, Finland champions a ‘no dead end’ approach, wherein the road is left open all the way up to higher education. As different institutions receive the same development funding, young people have the freedom and choice to move to and from technical and vocational training and university – never being rigidly bound to paths they chose years before. The outcome of this is higher numbers of skilled and educated young people.
This is made possible in Finland by clear policy shifts and legislative reforms that promote flexibility and nurture students throughout their educational journey. The curriculum in Finland has been restructured to incorporate life-skills and on the job training elements along with the traditional education components. Technical and vocational education and training is approached far more holistically, as parents are given lots of information and support, such as regular demonstrative parents’ evenings, in order to best help their child achieve their goals. Ultimately, the courses are seen as being more high status than they are in the UK.
Interestingly, this approach has not left Finnish students behind in terms of traditional academic achievement. In fact, they are some of the highest ranked achievers in the world for proficiency in maths, literature and science.
Of course, it would be misguided and misinformed to say that there is a one size fits all model when it comes to education, but until we address the failures of our education system, it is hard to see where the home-grown talent the Brexit vote demands will come from.