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11 Jun 2021

The GEC Manifesto for Education in Practice: Lord Jim Knight

The GEC Manifesto for Education in Practice: Lord Jim Knight

Adult skills, technical and vocational training need to be rethought to create a workforce that can take us forward. 

For any government around the world, adult skills are a huge challenge. The World Economic Forum reckons that, by 2025, 44% of the skills that employees will need to perform their roles effectively will change.

Globalisation, technological change and the transition to a zero-carbon economy are unstoppable. Those forces are also rapidly changing work and the skills needed to get a job and keep a secure income. Add to that the impact of Covid on jobs and technology adoption, and you realise that this must be a huge policy priority.

In the UK the challenge is even greater. We have a long-term problem of low productivity, and we still have the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit on the economy.

Against that backdrop it is urgent to rethink how adult skills are funded and delivered.

It is welcome that the government is now legislating with the Skills and Post-16 Bill. However, it is highly questionable whether this bill will tackle the problems or stimulate the innovation we now need.

The problems are significant.

The underfunding of FE Colleges is finally getting some government attention, but it has left the sector struggling. That has opened more opportunities for private providers; great for those in work or who can afford to pay. For the rest, getting join-up between skills policy in the education ministry, and unemployment support in ministry for work remains persistently elusive.

We have also seen faltering attempts to introduce aspirational vocational qualifications. The apprenticeship reforms have not worked, and most agree we need more flexibility in the qualifications themselves, as well as in how employers can use the levy. I hope the UK’s new T-Levels for 16–18-year-olds are more successful.

But this also points to a deeper problem. Our skills system is based on qualifications, despite employers now starting to use analytics to find potential rather than sifting on the basis of certification.

Currently I am working with 01-Edu. Founded by Nicolas Sadirac, it builds on his work with Ecole 42 in Paris. This is a proven pedagogy delivering over 95% employability for fully trained software engineers on handsome salaries. And yet you apply by playing
an online game, no qualifications are needed because the game assesses potential; there are no teachers and no certification at the end. 

Employers are hungry for talent and don't need qualifications if skills are proven some other way. So why is the UK government offering debt financed adult skills training solely on the basis of qualifications?

Other problems have been highlighted by the pandemic.

Adult training has used the scalability of online for some years. From MOOCs to compliance training, many of us have endured very dull, solitary e-learning that has been a million miles away from the addictive user design experience on gaming platforms and social media.

During Covid teachers and lecturers have found their own way, but largely try to replicate classroom pedagogy online. Inevitably this has had mixed results, and many practical skills in areas like construction and beauty therapy need hands-on learning. It feels like the potential for technology to enhance adult learning will only be realised when the workforce is fully trained in the pedagogies of online, hybrid and blended learning.

So, what might the future look like?

If we are to meet the challenge of millions of workers transitioning from retail and logistics, or from carbon positive to carbon neutral work, then we need highly engaging and effective adult skills training at scale.

I believe there will be some essential ingredients.

First, the learning design must learn from FIFA and TikTok to be engrossing. It should be social, gamified, always on and embrace the flexibility of audio and video on top of text, especially for assessment.

Secondly, technology should be embedded but not without thought. Learning is still a human endeavour, and so in most cases a blend of face-to-face coaching and mentoring, peer learning and online teaching will be required.

Thirdly, it should adapt in real time to employer needs. Qualifications have their place and often motivate deeper learning, but they take too long to develop if skills needs are changing fast. The assessment industry, and their regulators, need to catch up!

Fourthly, it should be empowering. Too often skills training is seen to fill a deficit, that the learner has a gap that needs filling. This mindset needs to shift to one that assesses the skills and aptitudes that a person already has, and then offers personalised choice around how that can be augmented. An Al tool could be invaluable in meeting this need.

The other mindset problem is an attitude to skills that regards it is an issue that only affects poorly educated people. The forces of change in the labour market are like a pandemic: they will not respect qualification – even graduates are vulnerable. We therefore need a universal skills account more than we need universal basic income. We need higher education for life, and not just as a rite of passage after school.

Finally, the strategic decisions should be set locally. Ministers and civil servants in the centre will never be able to design or commission enough variation for every local circumstance. Success will only happen when local economic planning, skills provision and unemployment support all align. That is only possible locally through metro mayors or local council leadership.

We are living through a time of huge change. The only certainty is uncertainty. Every one of us can expect multiple careers. We will all need a national education service that operates at scale, is personalised and localised. This was inconceivable until learning technologies opened new possibilities for teaching and learning. We now need to grasp the opportunity.


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