Adebayo Sholotan
Partnership for Young London

The Skills agenda in the Government’s recent Industrial Strategy Green Paper is an attempt to address the low skill low-wage equilibrium that has characterised the employment prospects for many young Londoners.

It focuses on reversing the low literacy and numeracy rates among school leavers and university graduates alike; the skills shortage in STEM and digital sectors; and, most crucially, the long neglect of technical education.

 Basic skills

The Industrial Strategy admits that too many young people with weak basic numeracy and literacy skills are going on to do low-level technical qualifications with broad generalist curriculums. This yields little by way of job prospects or study progression. The Green Paper also acknowledges that the average UK further education students gets fewer than 17 hours per week of tuition over a 36-week teaching year, compared to 28 hours in Norway.

Yet, there is little by way of new initiatives to boost numeracy and literacy. The Green Paper rehashes 2015’s five year £67 million package, to train an additional 2,500 Maths and physics teachers. While the Skills Plan, launched last year, introduced a transition retake year for students who gets a “D” or below in GCSE Maths and/or English.

Instead the Industrial Strategy proposes a host of further reviews, to explore a range of issues. From the cultural factors, and practical barriers impeding take-up in Maths, to how Further Education Colleges can become “centres of excellence” for teaching Maths and English. The Strategy will also consult on how to boost STEM education.

Worryingly, little is said about the soft or behavioural skills young people need to take on the ‘high paid high skilled jobs of the future’. A report by Young Enterprise last year, found that third of 16 – 18-year-olds said their education omitted the key employment skills required in the workplace, such as communication, teamwork, building confidence, and problem-solving.

 Vocational pathways

The Government does better on its commitment to reform vocational education.  The policy void, which has led to a 40% fall in ‘take up’ of some vocational courses, is to be filled by a new system which includes the creation of regional Institutes of Technology. The government will spend an extra £500 million a year the new system. This follow the government’s announcement in May last year to spend nearly £80 million on the creation of 5 new National Colleges providing high-tech training in industries crucial to economic growth – high speed rail, nuclear, onshore oil and gas, digital skills and the creative industries.

The new funding will increase the amount of level 3 technical training for 16 to 19-year-olds’ by 50%, to 900 hours a year, including the completion of a high quality industrial placement during programmes

The Government aims to encourage students to continue their level 4 to 6 training either at National Colleges or at these new regional Institutes of Technology. Each Institutes of Technology will deliver high-level technical qualifications tailored around the needs of local employers. And the baffling jumble of 13,000 available qualifications, simplified into 15 core technical routes, with a single UCAS style search and application process. This will do much to unravel the current confusion for post 16 year olds considering a technical route.

On par with university students, young people studying at National Colleges or Institutes of Technology will also be eligible for maintenance loans.

 Work experience

However, for vocational routes to be a credible, not a “second best” option, better ‘career orientation’ needs to be embedded in the school curriculum for London’s under 16 year olds.

The German system provides a useful model. At age 13/14, young people take part in three ‘practice days’ with different local employers, allowing them to test different vocations with career counselling on the process of vocational planning and decision-making.  The process provides information of the economic, occupational and education and training paths available through range of events such as career speed-dating, career trade fairs, and apprenticeship fairs.  In key stage 4 a longer work experience period, usually 3 weeks, is arranged according to the outcomes three ‘practice days’.

Our academic pathways could also benefit from lessons from the German model. Engineering students for example are required to perform several supervised practical projects in companies.  As the Wakeham Review of UK STEM Degree Provision and Graduate Employability pointed out last year, graduates would be better prepared for work when, as students, they have access to work experience. However, only 11% of first degree UK students at university took a sandwich year in 2014–15.

This approach contrasts sharply with the UK, where young people are often expected to arrange their own work experience placement, which tend to be limited to what is available through their informal networks.  Research produced last year by Education and Employers reminds us that former recipients of Free School Meals recall lower levels of work experience arranged by their former schools than their peers.

Post Brexit, the seven recommendation of the 2015 report by London Council’s, the Mayor of London’s Office and the London Enterprise Panel, ‘London Ambitions: Shaping a Successful Careers Offer for all Young Londoners‘, are even more important. They include the provision the “100 hours’ work experience for every child by the age of 16”; the personalised careers advice; comprehensive, up-to-date information on the jobs market in the capital; as well as a ‘London Ambitions Careers Curriculum’, to help young people think about the learning experiences they have during schooling from a workplace perspective.

 Business engagement

The success of the German model owes a great deal to the systematic scale of business involvement.   The Government is therefore right to stress the importance of creating the right framework to incentivise business to invest in skills. But there remains the question of who should take on the responsibility to grow the current disparate employer links into a dynamic network that benefits all school and college students in London?

The Greater London Authority would seem the obvious candidate. The challenge for The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is to bring together key partners including local authorities, London Enterprise Partners, specialist NGOs, educators and business, in developing a systematic approach to business engagement in London.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen, whether the new Apprenticeship Levy will deliver the investment in the quantity and (more importantly) quality the Government hopes for.

Many SMEs may feel they lack the capacity to take apprentices; or may find it hard to attract talent they need. Measures in the Industrial Strategy to encourage prestigious businesses with oversubscribed apprenticeship schemes to place more of their apprentices into firms in their supply chains may help. This model of ‘over-training’ is well established in Germany, and has been successfully piloted in the UK’s aerospace and automotive sectors by Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and Siemens. The Government is right to promote such models among other larger businesses.

 Digital skills for digital jobs

Despite the growing need for workers – an estimated 1.2 million new technical and digitally skilled people are needed by 2022 – computer science graduates have the highest unemployment rate of any degree course at 10% after 6 months graduating. This is in part due to some graduates not leaving with the technical or professional skills needed by employers.

Women are also currently underrepresented in digital roles and qualifications: just 17% of people working in the tech sector and only 9.5% of students taking computer science A level courses are female.

However, in collaboration with business the Government and Mayor of London seem to have grasp the nettle with a range of measures. In September last year, the Government and Mayor together invested £31 million in opening ADA, the National College for Digital Skills located in Tottenham Hale and Whitechapel. The college will train students in a range of digital careers, such as software and database developers, user experience designers and tech entrepreneurs. It is also working with a range of businesses, including partnering with Google to launch the Higher-Level Apprenticeship in Digital Innovation Program.

With a focus on young women, the Mayor also launched last December a £7m Digital Talent Programme to arm young Londoners with the skills they need to access jobs in the capital’s thriving digital, technology and creative industries. The Programme aims to:

  • increase the number of high-quality learning opportunities for young people aged 15-24 years old to study industry-designed courses in technology, digital and digital-creative disciplines that will lead to employment.
  • support 1,000 young Londoners to access new, industry approved learning opportunities.
  • assist 500 university students to gain new skills and work experience through small business placements.

The Government also plans to set up a new Digital Skills Partnership, to coordinate between the large number of business-led digital skills programmes currently available.

A small step forward

While the initiatives in the Industrial Strategy, particularly in relation post 16 technical education, are a positive step forward for young Londoners, they do not go far enough. More funding, not less, is needed to support under 16s vocation education in London’s schools. The government’s revised national funding formula, in which 70 per cent of schools in London will lose out, is therefore counter-productive.

The Strategy must also include targeted initiatives to reach young people from vulnerable cohorts: those from minority and socially excluded backgrounds, the long term unemployed, special educational needs and disabilities.