2 May 2007

Does the UK need “more skills”?

The idea that, in the words of the Green Paper, the UK economy “will increasingly demand more highly skilled employees” is regularly trotted out to justify the relentless expansion, at the taxpayer’s expense, of “education”.

As far as I’m aware, no political party now questions (or dares to question) this principle. But it strikes me as hopelessly undefined, unanalysed, unsupported by hard data, and probably false.

It depends, of course, what you mean by “skills”. We could probably do these days with slightly better language and basic maths abilities among young adults. But those abilities aren’t what are acquired (or ought to be acquired) in post-GCSE or higher education. They used to be acquired in primary education, but are now apparently beyond the abilities of most state school teachers.

So the global economy is changing, it is said, and the UK’s role within it is changing. The decline of UK manufacturing, and the rise of the service sector will (let us assume) continue. But that could equally be an argument for less education/training. If the sorts of skills being used in the average British job of the future have more to do with doing stuff on computers, then this might reduce the need for formal skills to be acquired in schools and universities. Chemistry? Not needed because chemicals/textiles/etc sectors have moved overseas. French? Not needed because globalisation makes English the universal language.

I’m not trying to argue for less “education”, not in this post anyway. My point is that the opposite claim has become a maxim for which no meaningful justification is apparently required.

If any specific new skills really are needed for the “new economy”, it seems to me these are likely to be IT-related. But IT is certainly not what the vast majority of undergrads are studying these days. (And to the extent they are, I doubt that what they’re learning is much use in this connection, except for specialised IT-industry jobs.) And IT is not going to be what the new population of coerced school students would be studying.

Could someone please direct me to some actual cogent reasoning in favour of expanding state-financed education? Something less handwaving than the usual “New Economy … different skills … more training … cannot compete”? Oh, and also, could there please be included some compelling reasoning why there is then also a market failure, i.e. the economy will not automatically respond to any putative need for more skills, say by the private sector offering training courses?


John East said...

I gave up attempting to understand the arguments of politicians and the educational establishment some time ago when I saw what they had achieved with my three children, and as a result finally got the courage to admit to myself that they were preaching what needed to be preached to keep the educational bandwagon rolling. Once one acknowledges that the emperor has no clothes it’s easy to see that the only way they could achieve their main objective, to secure the vast expenditure needed to employ a small army of liberals to brainwash the next generation of good European social democrats, could only be done by hiding the fact that standards have nosedived since the 1960's.

Looking at it from their point of view, when ones socialist ideology is incapable of succeeding, why bother with the impossible challenge of making Britain great again when it is far less trouble simply to tell the dumbed down masses that education gets better every day, and to "prove" it by liberally handing out examination certificates.

As for the provision of new skills to meet future needs, what a laugh. How could any politician ever get this right, particularly the calibre of self serving ideologues we have in control today. Our only hope would have been to let the market decide. I suspect the window of opportunity has now passed.

haddock said...

How the hell do you decide what 'skills' might be required by the time a child leaves school ?
Training in a particular skill is a job for the employer.... the purpose of schooling/education is to prepare the ground for that skill teaching by teaching, at the very least, arithmetic, reading and writing. Even this low target is not being reached so what chance of schools teaching skills.

ps have added a link to this site on http://haddock-somethingfishy.blogspot.com/

Winfred Mann said...

"Could someone please direct me to some actual cogent reasoning in favour of expanding state-financed education"

I think I can sum it up in three wordsP: "Money is power!"