Britain needs a Bolder Strategy

Further to the invitation of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I had the honour of attending the launch of the government’s new Industrial Strategy paper, as held in London’s Francis Crick Institute. On the way there from Hertfordshire, I had the pleasure of riding on the national railway system, taking in the splendours of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations as I disembarked for my short walk to the Institute. British construction marvels, one and all, built thanks to the expertise and knowledge as handed down from one generation to the next.

That notion of heritage passed through my mind as I took in the Industrial Strategy launch, finding myself once again surrounded by the fruits of construction labour in the reception area of the Institute. Being invested in education work through my various roles, I paid particular attention to the Strategy’s emphasis on People. This section of the white paper quite rightly highlights a need to tackle our shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills, with the projected creation of 15 new technical education routes or Institutes of Technology, £500m annual backing for T levels, plus a 50% increase of training hours for students on such level courses. All noble ideals, but ones that still fail to address the fact that we are leaving technical education far too late in the curriculum.

The training hours promise, as designated for 16-19 year olds, reminded me that our future workforce is still held back by the trappings of a ‘locked-in’ education system. Those students with the right technology-based mindset have to continue on into the sixth form stream, divesting their time between various subjects that may not wholly align with their career goals, and only on finishing at either 16 or 19 do they get the vocational skills options that so sorely define the STEM sector.

There is nothing wrong with such a stream arrangement for those heading towards a humanities degree, but for our future engineers, builders and technicians, the essential skillset offered by an apprenticeship or single-course stream is coming at too late a stage, or is merely being presented as more of an extra-curricular addendum to their education career, as opposed to being a vital part of it. This sort of thinking undervalues the promises offered by vocational education and the prospect of a degree apprenticeship in the future, and I believe it’s a system which will ultimately damage our economy in the long-run.

The Industrial Strategy talks about the demands of an ageing population, but doesn’t have the vision to maximise the out-turn of enough skilled workers starting their careers at the rate of people leaving them, to go into retirement. My age group is often pilloried for creating “generation rent”, but we still remain the backstop for vocational skills this Country is now in desperate need of, extending the retirement age for this group, still further. Compound this with a 30% reduction in net migration post Brexit, and the urgent need to get students into the right track earlier, becomes ever more pressing. This is the only way to shorten the learning curve, as it were, now that we are blessed nationally with such high levels of employment.

Adding to the problem is a three-tier education system that comes with three separate sources of funding. The lack of cohesion, makes for colleges running sub-par 16+ courses up and down the country, and a reliance for our universities to bring in international students to make up any deficits. This is often at the expense of our own nation’s students who don’t have the grand funds which our top Universities find so attractive.

This disparity and education ‘time lag’ is something which the Industrial Strategy doesn’t address. Before we talk of the relative attractions to AI and data revolutions, let’s not forget the bricks and mortar thinking that gives us the homes and equipment and all the tools to make them with. Without them, where will the next calling point for the train we ride on as a country, come from? We don’t want to be running out of track any time soon.

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