As growth in the UK’s working age population slows, the role of education in driving forward productivity becomes increasingly important.
The last few weeks have seen millions of teenagers across the nation receive their exam results. For many this will be a cause for celebration as they relax and enjoy the last of summer before beginning their next step. For others, now is a period of reflection, softened by a deluge of support reminding them that a single examination result does not determine their future.
It is true that the academic route is not for everyone, and nor should it be in a dynamic and complex modern economy, however analysis by the IFS has shown that the level of education inevitably improves lifetime earnings. The government itself seems to be aware that there needs to be an improvement in transitioning young school leavers to employment, with the announcement last year that an additional three million apprenticeships are to be created. Despite this a recent House of Lords report concluded that the vocational route remained confusing for both young people and employers, with many drifting into employment with “no real prospect of progression”.
Although the UK economy has transformed dramatically in the past few decades, our education system has not adapted. What we are left with is arguably a “one size fits all” model of education, which leaves far too many behind. Data collected on the socio-economic status of young people sitting their GCSE examinations confirm this:
Free school meals are often used as a proxy for student background, on account of them being offered to students whose parents are on low incomes. The above chart highlights how a considerably smaller percentage of students who receive free school meals will achieve 5 or more A*-C grades than their peers. The divide is even more pronounced when we consider gender and ethnicity, with white boys in receipt of free school meals performing the worst academically compared to any other group.
In the current system, GCSE results can determine where and what you can study at the next stage of your education. Poor results can have an adverse impact on your immediate and long-term future. As a result, too many young people leave full time education without developing the skills necessary to achieve their potential in the labour market.
According to the OECD, young people in the UK have some of the lowest cognitive skills when compared to other developed nations. Over a quarter of 16-29 year olds are recognized as having poor numeracy skills, while almost 18% have poor literacy skills. These are the base skills that many occupations require. This could lead young people to struggle just to gain entry into the labour market and even when they do find employment, there will be limits on their productivity and obstacles to their progression.
Increasing the school leaving age to 18 and a new emphasis on apprenticeships suggest that the government is aware the current system isn’t working for many students, but there is a lot of work left to do. A recent report by Teach First has found that students from a poor background are being discouraged from pursuing vocational apprenticeships, due to the complex nature of applications and the perception that apprenticeships are low paid. The same socio-economic conditions which have caused divisions in academic education are still just as visible in vocational education.
We must keep in mind the wider consequences of poor educational attainment in an ageing society. The UK has seen productivity stagnate for many years now, but with an ageing population, the proportion of workers to older people is going to fall. It is imperative that a slowing growth in the labour force can be offset by increasingly productive workers, and this begins with ensuring that our education system is working for the young.
This area deserves more research, in order to direct resources and attention to the best methods of helping young people across a wide range of backgrounds to ensure educational success. The modern UK economy requires a multi-skilled and diverse workforce, and it is time our education system was better able to support these needs.
Research and Policy Intern