Enterprise Issues: Tailor training and skills to what we really need

It would be a shame to repeat in education in the 1990s the mistakes made in industrial policy in the 1960s

THE SMELL of chalk and cloakrooms has the Proustian effect, each weekday morning, of reminding me just how boring school was. Becoming educated is a very dull business most of the time. Nothing seems to have changed in the 20 years since I left school. In our local primary the lowest common denominator nonsense of the literacy hour was soon renamed illiteracy hour, and the realisation that it is followed by an innumeracy hour has spread gloom over teachers and pupils alike.

The trouble is that education is rightly seen as the key to economic success - personal, in that people with degrees on average earn much higher salaries, and national, as a more highly qualified workforce raises productivity and living standards. The creation of a high-skills economy is at the heart of policy. It was highlighted in the Competitiveness White Paper published at the end of last year, for example. But upskilling the work- force has been a key policy aim for decades, which suggests that despite all the efforts to improve education and training there is something Britain is still getting wrong.

For example, a survey carried out early in 1997 by Skope, a skills and knowledge research centre at Oxford and Warwick Universities, found the level of educational qualification had improved since 1986 but too many people now hold intermediate level qualifications that over-qualify them for their current job. The proportion of jobs requiring anything above A-level had risen, but only from 20 per cent to 24 per cent. The proportion needing a degree rose to 10.8 per cent.

A fascinating new edition of the Oxford Review of Economic Policy (Oxford University Press, telephone 01865 792212 or e-mail econrev@ermine.ox.ac.uk) addresses the links between knowledge, skills and competitiveness. In the introductory article Ken Mayhew and Ewart Keep note that part of the confusion is a haziness about what we mean by skills.

It is true that the British economy has been mired in a "low skills/low quality equilibrium" - a situation where many companies do not demand highly skilled workers because they produce low- value-added goods, and workers do not seek to improve their skills because there is no demand for them. Government policies since the late 1980s have addressed the supply side of this problem, trying to train more highly qualified employees, and failing to address the lack of demand for skills.

This problem is pressing. The authors say: "Though it is too easy to be apocalyptic about the consequences of competing at the low-skill end of the global economy and to over-emphasise the impact thus far on Britain of globalisation, the message for the future is pretty clear. A UK business which produces low-spec goods or services in a tradable sector is likely to be in competition with producers of similar goods not just in developed countries but in developing ones."

The problem of shifting from a low to a high equilibrium is more than a matter of better education and training. Skills and knowledge form one element in a web of factors needed for improved economic performance. One paper in the review, by David Finegold, analyses "high-skill ecosystems" in California, where skills are part of a package of environmental, cultural and structural conditions that permit high-productivity and generate enormous wealth. Everything from the political and legal framework to the road and telephone system matters.

This was recognised in the DTI's White Paper, which emphasised the importance of clusters - shorthand, really, for creating such high-skill ecosystems. The editors of the Review write: "For the first time in the last two decades there is an explicit recognition that there is an enabling ... role for the state." This includes a government role in rebuilding the UK science base and improving the corporate record on research and development.

And, of course, in providing through the education and training system the calibre of workforce needed by business. But the White Paper, and the policy debate more generally, shifts between two extremely different types of skill or knowledge. One is abstract, academic knowledge of the kind that the elite part of the university system has always been geared to deliver. This is the sort of classic educational achievement that enables a country to stay at the forefront of technological progress, especially now the frontier of the economy is so heavily knowledge-based thanks to the scientific and IT revolution. People with these abilities - not necessarily scientists, but anybody reaping the harvest of an elite liberal education - can become what Robert Reich, the former US Labor Secretary, has called "symbolic analysts". They are the professional elite of a modern economy.

On the other hand, in an increasingly service-based economy, the skills needed are not at all academic but interpersonal and communication skills. These might not need much in the way of conventional educational attainment at all. On the contrary, young people who rebel against the straitjacket of academic success and literacy hours could turn out to be precisely those who will do well in less totemic but hugely important parts of the weightless economy. They could be the personal trainers and designers, musicians and football stars of the future.

The lessons for the education system are clearly not straightforward. As Keep and Mayhew conclude: "As is often the way with academic commentators,we stand open to the accusation of having a problem for every solution."

And certainly, education is a central element in economic policy. There is no doubt that Britain has fallen behind in educational achievements of all kinds, academic and vocational. So in a sense it does not matter what sort of education policy the Government has as long as it really means it.

At the same time, it would be a shame to repeat in education in the 1990s the mistakes made in, say, industrial policy in the 1960s. Although we need all our children to be numerate and literate to a higher standard, Whitehall cannot plan and deliver the sort of workers the British economy is going to need.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect