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Mend the gap: What one thing would you do to close the skills gap by 2025?

City & Guilds, in partnership with the New Statesman, brought industry and academia together and asked, what one thing would you do to close the skills gap by 2025?

In 2013, just under 150,000 vacancies – equivalent to one in five of the job openings that year – went unfilled. Why? Because employers could not find candidates with the right knowledge and abilities. The figure, drawn from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, encapsulates the challenge facing government, education and industry, and to underscore the point, almost a million young people are out of work in Britain. At the same time, 27 per cent of European employers report leaving an entry-level position open due to a lack of skilled applicants.

To discuss this dilemma and in an effort to produce some practical solutions, City & Guilds (in partnership with the New Statesman) invited leading voices from industry and academia to a skills symposium and asked them to address this overarching question: “What one thing would you do, or suggest, in order to close the skills gap by 2025?”

In her capacity as president of City & Guilds, HRH the Princess Royal opened up the discussion and observed: “Any society must understand the dichotomy between what education thinks is necessary in terms of high academic standards and what is going to be most useful to those involved in employing people.”

Weaving through any discussion of this kind are four interlinked issues. One is the impact of technology, both as an enabler of new skills and as an inhibitor of job creation. Then there are the twin demographic realities of youth unemployment and an ageing population. Finally, there is an ongoing disparity of opportunity between the sexes.

Offering up the first solution of the day, William Akerman, managing director of MyKindaCrowd, said it was time to transform the old careers adviser into a “world of work curator”, someone who could liaise with companies, understand the changing working environment and connect students with the workplace. “The traditional model of the careers adviser is pretty much redundant,” Akerman said, arguing that the work curator would provide a link between work and education. “If you teach maths in exactly the same way, you are going to get exactly the same outcomes. Whereas, if you match industry with the subject and engage companies in the process of delivery, all of a sudden it has a relevance, it has a meaning, it has a destination.”

The need to adapt to a changing working environment proved to be a recurring theme. Ann Brown, senior vice-president for HR at Capgemini, the IT services company, recommended reintroducing work experience for teachers. “I see teachers go to school, university and then back to school. And I’d love them to come out to our organisation and work alongside apprentices and graduates, and say, ‘So this is what the world of work is like.’” Brown pointed out that half the people at Capgemini are working in technology areas – big data and cloud computing, for example – that did not exist five years ago. “It’s about lifetime skills and lifetime training. It’s not just a point-in-time exercise.”

Carly Ward, founder of YES Education and The Entrepreneurial Education Group, argued that schools required an injection of entrepreneurialism and not just among the students. She said: “We need to start with the teachers because you are never going to get employability and entrepreneurial skills in the curriculum [otherwise].” Entrepreneurial skills, Ward said, are not just about starting a business. “They are transferable to everything a young person decides to do . . . self-belief, goal-setting, confidence-building, making decisions, and interview skills.”

It was a view echoed by Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid. “Entrepreneurship is not just for entrepreneurs,” Holliday said. Picking up on previous themes, he recommended: “Every secondary school teacher should have responsibility for careers, not a careers master. Every teacher should go out into the workplace for a week every year . . . If you do not go out for three years, guess what, you are going to be very out of date very quickly.”

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, senior research investigator in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, and a vice-president of City & Guilds, added: “If we are expecting teachers to keep up with changes in technology, changes in the science and the maths they are teaching, they have to have subjectspecific continuous professional training. And in my view it has to be mandatory, and career progression has to depend on it.”

Higgins added that schools and colleges needed to change their accountability measures. “If you want entrepreneurial skills you are going to have to think of a way of measuring it.”

Chris Jones, chief executive of City & Guilds, said the challenge was to “break that dominant logic about what it is we would want to have in place that allows someone to be able to demonstrate competence, passion, ability, talent and motivation”. He argued that a system defined by GCSEs or A-levels “is becoming almost outdated”.

Brown also urged a change in the way schools are evaluated, in order “to have more focus on employability”, while City & Guilds’s group strategy director, Philip Ellaway, said: “Don’t tell schools how to do it but measure the fact that they do do it.”

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), suggested that part of the solution was “to make schools accountable for young people’s awareness and attitudes to work and education”. He said if that is to happen, schools need to rid themselves of their obsession with Ofsted.

He continued: “The RSA started a piece of development work around year 7/8 to find a diagnostic tool which enables us to understand the way in which 13-year-olds are starting to close down choices in their lives. They are starting to say, ‘I’m no good at science’ or ‘I’ll never go to university’, or equally, ‘I’ve got to go to university even though I would actually quite like to do something more vocational.’” Such a tool, said Taylor, would help young people to “have higher expectations . . . and just a more realistic understanding of their choices”.

For Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of further education (FE) colleges, the answer to the skills crisis is “to reinvent, reconfigure and liberate the skills system. And I’m talking about every bit of it – supply, demand, qualification, role of employers and educational institutions.”

Meanwhile, Anne-Marie Imafidon’s central concern was the lack of female representation in science, technology, engineering and maths, the so-called Stem subjects. Imafidon, who works for Deutsche Bank and founded an organisation called Stemettes, exposing women to Stem subjects, pointed out that of all the people employed in these areas only 13 per cent were women.

Her solution is to “improve the messaging we have around Stem”. She said: “Today it is very much about the whiz, the bang, the fast cars, but a lot of Stem is about solving problems and creativity.” When people think of scientists, engineers and those successful in the world of technology, they think about Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, Imafidon pointed out, rather than the likes of Roma Agrawal, the award-winning structural Steve Holliday Chief executive, National Grid Anne-Marie Imafidon Founder, Stemettes Chris Jones Chief executive, City & Guilds Dame Asha Khemka Principal, West Nottinghamshire College Lynne Sedgmore Executive director, 157 Group Matthew Taylor Chief executive, Royal Society of Arts Carly Ward Founder and chief executive, YES Education engineer who worked on the Shard tower in London.

For Dame Asha Khemka, principal and chief executive of West Nottinghamshire College, the answer to solving the skills crisis came down to leadership. “We need to make sure we have the right leadership at the local level where there is enough flexibility and enough imagination to make sure that people are being trained, educated and developed in the right way,” she said.

She added: “We have an issue in our country that graduates are not employable. What about making industrial placement or work experience a mandatory part of our FE programmes?”

Drawing the debate to a close, Sir John Armitt, chairman of City & Guilds, observed that employability is essential for an individual to become a “fully involved” citizen. “Education should be about getting people to a point where they are going to make a real contribution to society, and that must mean a closer linkage between the education system and subsequent life.”

The City & Guilds Skills Symposium, in partnership with the New Statesman, took place on 1 April 2014 at the House of St Barnabas, London W1

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle