The left behind could do with UK support

Posted on September 4, 2016

A nursing lecture at The University of Northampton©University of Northampton

The post-Brexit environment in Britain will be harsh. We shall be living in a more competitive world in which we will become even more dependent on our skills. Some Brexiters want Britain to become a global trading hub like Hong Kong or Singapore. But Hong Kong and Singapore have no natural resources. Their only resources are their brains and they make full use of them. Does the UK do the same?

We do well in educating the elite. In world university league tables, Oxford and Cambridge appear regularly in the top 10. But we do much less well, and always have done, in educating those whose skills are technical and vocational rather than academic. We focus too much on those already advantaged rather than on those who need more help to realise their abilities.

    Britain’s record in basic literacy and numeracy is appalling. In January 2016, a report from the OECD group of rich countries found that the UK had the lowest literacy rate and the second lowest numeracy rate of 23 developed nations. There is a shortfall in the supply of non-graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

    Those who do not choose academic courses are, in the words of a recent report from the House of Lords committee on social mobility, “overlooked and left behind”. That is a waste of human resources we can no longer afford.

    The cleavage between those left behind and the exam-passing classes is the most fundamental in our society. It was strikingly apparent in the EU referendum; in the 2015 general election, in which the only parties making significant gains were those disproportionately supported by the left behind — the UK Independence party, in particular; and in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, in which the only four areas to vote Yes all contained above-
    average percentages of the left behind.

    Theresa May, the prime minister, has promised a new industrial strategy. But governments can do little to promote economic growth through direct action on industry, and too many of their wheezes
    , such as Concorde or the Millennium Dome,
    turn out to be vanity projects, wasting millions in public money.

    The HS2 high-speed rail line is another such vanity project, and even more expensive. The best industrial strategy for post-Brexit Britain would be to scrap it and put the money saved into a radical skills policy.

    Such a policy would have two legs. The first would be to end the national curriculum at 14, rather than, as currently, at 16. Young people not following an academic path could then take alternative technical or vocational courses. Their needs could be served by university technical colleges, the brainchild of Kenneth Baker, the former education secretary. There are at present 39 of these colleges, with a further 11 in the pipeline. There should be many more.

    The second leg would be a massive expansion of the further education sector. Further education colleges can provide the skills needed for employment, the training of young people for apprenticeships and the retraining of victims of technological change. They could become engines of social mobility.

    Yet governments have protected school and university budgets from austerity but not those of further education colleges. In Scotland, the Scottish National party government has followed the highly regressive policy of financing free university tuition by cutting the further education sector from nearly 380,000 in 2007 to 227,000 today.

    British governments have rightly devoted much attention in recent years to the integration of ethnic minorities. That has been, despite blemishes, a success story. Where governments have been less successful is in integrating the white working class. Until that has been achieved, we cannot genuinely claim to have become one nation.

    The writer is professor of government at King’s College London

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