Everyone in the UK should be able to achieve a decent standard of living regardless of their background, yet poverty and even destitution are widespread in this country today. You’re better off almost anywhere else in Europe: the lowest-earning bracket of British households have a standard of living 20 per cent weaker than their counterparts in Slovenia.
Ministers like to say that work is the only way out of poverty but enact policies and support an economy in which the rich get richer and those on low incomes get poorer. The recipe for social immobility; the very opposite of the Conservative Party’s disingenuous vow to “level up”.
Among those who think they know what it takes to make business successful, it is common to advocate investment in tech enterprises to make UK or parts of it into the “next Silicon Valley” or words to that effect. If only we could create the next Google or Tesla, they say, then we could create loads of hi-tech jobs, with super salaries.
‘Less sexy’ businesses neglected
In the meantime what of the people with undiscovered or just average abilities who merely want to provide decent living standards for their families? Do they simply have to put up with the misery of not having enough? Where is the focus on the parts of the economy apparently less sexy in the eyes of policy makers: the businesses currently losing billions of potential sales through not being able to find the workforce they need?
For years it has been understood that lack of second languages reduces UK GDP by some 3.5 per cent through business lost. Not only do business people fight shy of exporting through language diffidence but they also lose out in understanding what customers or distributors want. Yet while employers continue to seek language skills, universities have cut language courses: only a reported 70 out of 160 colleges offer them, according to a report out this year. A complacent reliance on trade being conducted in so-called Global English is no basis for a commercial future.
The arts too, despite being able to demonstrate a huge contribution to trade and employment, seem to receive harsh treatment from the Tory Treasury. Fixating on science, technology and Maths (STEM) subjects as the potential saviours of the economy has sidelined this sector. According to Arts Professional, teacher numbers fell by nearly a quarter between 2011and 2018. The promotion by central government of the EBacc can only have worsened this picture, including, as it does, no arts in its core.
The great apprenticeship rip-off
And what of teaching that can lead to learning a trade? To those who place wealth, or the latest hi-tech, on a pedestal, such work is not worthy of respect. FE colleges are where young people can and do learn trades and skills, located within communities, close to employment, such as in the building trades, transport and logistics, music and the performing arts, healthcare and engineering.
And yet – would you credit it? – the government’s much vaunted scheme to boost apprenticeships has resulted in taxpayers’ money going to subsidise £100,000-a-year executives to study for MBAs, reports The Independent (Revealed: The £1bn apprenticeship rip-off).
Meanwhile, funding for FE students since 2010 has fallen by 17 per cent while that per undergraduate has grown by 8 per cent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). The government last year, in its Skills and Post-16 Education Act, determined that FE be run as a nationalised sector, severing its offering from regional needs.
In a recent initiative, belatedly addressing the Brexodus of European workers, loans to assist adults to study new technical skills have been announced. However, these Lifelong Loan Entitlements (LLEs) will not be set out in detail until 2024, and no cash will be available until at least 2025.
Raising social mobility for millions
Yes, resourcing innovation is important, but surely not to the exclusion, or belittling, of other valuable sectors. People are not all the same. Artists may not make good physicists, and linguists may be poor programmers.
Further Education colleges are spread throughout England. Given proper funding and freedom to engage at the strategic level with local authorities and employers, these could be the resource to raise social mobility across the country for millions, not just select thousands.
Whitehall should not try to control everything from their ivory tower, from which they can have little appreciation of what students or employers need.
People everywhere must have access to the development of skills needed by employers in their communities. And employers should be able to make the most of business opportunities because they can find the people they need, locally. That way lies social mobility.
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