Last year, 2020, will go down in history as the year that the world battled a dangerous and indiscriminate virus. Yet it was also the year in which education fully embraced the latest 21st-century technology.
Remote education is not new – the Open University is an example of an organisation that has been successfully delivering online education for many years. But the scale of the shift to online delivery due to the pandemic was unprecedented. Colleges stepped up to the challenge and rapidly shifted to delivering digital provision. Throughout 2020 I undertook a series of virtual college visits where I participated in online lessons and interacted with staff and students.
This government’s priority is making sure students receive the best education and training possible whether at home or in a classroom, so we invested in increasing the training opportunities available for teachers and funded seven further education college partnerships to develop high-quality digital resources. I believe this new approach to education will last and benefit generations to come. Technology has impacted everything about the way we live our lives, and we must embrace this change.
I have always believed that technical education can change lives, which is why I was delighted to become the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. Thanks to our reforms, apprenticeships have continued to play a key role in developing new talent from all walks of life, helping to ensure employers of all sizes have access to the skills they need to grow. Apprenticeship opportunities are now available in a wide range of exciting fields, from artificial intelligence to space engineering.
Having left school at 16, in Liverpool in the 1980s, against a backdrop of high unemployment, my apprenticeship was a life-changing experience. Still, decades later, I believe that studying alongside working is a brilliant way to make sure you are gaining valuable skills. Apprenticeships form a central part of our revolution of technical education, and since 2010 nearly five million people have started their apprenticeship journey.
We will supercharge these efforts in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, as we have an urgent need to close huge skills gaps in our economy. The first six weeks in my post, before the first lockdown, were spent in meetings about how dire our skills shortages are – from digital to construction, agri-tech to graphic design. I would hear, day after day, how we could not meet demand from businesses for the skills they need.
This issue extends beyond our borders, with companies in the US, Mexico and Italy, to name a few, struggling to find and retain the best talent. Having spent many years working internationally in various sectors I know first-hand the difficulty in recruiting where these skills are lacking.
Research reveals that a quarter of vacancies in England were hard to fill because applicants lack the appropriate skills, qualifications or experience. That’s why we are taking the steps needed to make sure further education providers deliver the skills employers need to grow. As it stands, only 4 per cent of young people achieve higher technical qualifications, despite employers crying out for skills at this level. If the UK is to achieve some of its bold plans – bringing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 through green jobs and improving the country’s infrastructure through major projects like HS2 – then we need the workforce to do it.
Our recently published Skills for Jobs white paper will introduce a dynamic programme of measures to reshape this country’s technical education landscape. This white paper outlines our blueprint for creating jobs and rebuilding our economy. But to achieve this we must ensure that technical education and training meets the needs of employers locally and nationally. That is why we are putting employers at the heart of the system and making sure local employers have a say on what local courses and training will be delivered. And by 2030 the vast majority of technical courses will follow employer-led standards, ensuring that the education and training people receive are directly linked to the skills needed for real jobs.
These changes haven’t come about by accident. We built on the success of our apprenticeship programme and learnt from other countries, such as Singapore and Germany, having cherry-picked the successful elements of these systems so that our technical education system is the envy of the world. This will act as a springboard for dynamic economies that present challenges and offer opportunities and innovation. However, it is not just about the economy; it is about a system working for people, that levels-up opportunities across the country.
The unfortunate and sad fact is that we all have friends and family who are stuck in relatively low-paid and insecure work, through lack of opportunity or support to learn the skills employers value. That’s why we must give people the opportunity to access high-quality training opportunities so they can get ahead.
We are also introducing modular, flexible study, and flexible funding so that people who have work or family commitments can continue to train and retrain throughout their lives. For example, our Skills Bootcamps will offer adults the chance to undertake short, flexible training in a range of exciting industries including digital, engineering and construction.
This kind of flexibility is made possible by technology. It is this technology that the education sector embraced almost overnight and to powerful effect. The world has changed, and we owe it to our young people, and to adults looking to retrain, to change with it and deliver a truly cutting-edge, future-proof skills system that will deliver for both individuals and employers.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on Skills and Apprenticeships, February 2021. Click here to download the new report.