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Vernon Bogdanor: Our post-Brexit economy depends on councils closing the skills gap

Vernon Bogdanor
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Fifty years ago Britain was divided by class. Now it is divided by education.

Then, one could leave school at 16 or 18 with confidence that there would be secure employment. That benign world has disappeared for the unskilled and the semi-skilled.

A new cleavage has arisen in British politics between those with educational qualifications and those without. Those with qualifications are geographically as well as socially mobile. They are drawn to London, a magnet for the exam-passing classes, or to the large conurbations. The left-behind remain in a provincial England that has become denuded and hollowed out.

If provincial England is to recover, it needs a radical skills policy. Our skills record is lamentable. In January 2016 an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report found that Britain had the lowest literacy rate and the second lowest numeracy rate of 23 developed countries.

To succeed after Brexit, we will have to emulate global trading hubs such as Singapore or Hong Kong. The only resource these places have is their skills. They use the brains of all of their people to the full. Our own economic future depends on whether we can do the same.

We do well in using the brains of the elite. Our universities are amongst the best in the world. We do much worse in educating those whose skills are primarily vocational and technical rather than academic. We focus too much on those already advantaged and neglect those who, in the words of a recent report from the House of Lords committee on social mobility, are “overlooked and left behind”.

Our schools system accentuates rather than remedies the gap between the elite and the rest. It also accentuates regional differences. In his final annual report, chief schools inspector Michael Wilshaw pointed to a widening north-south divide. Of the ten worst performing local authorities where 40% or more children are in weak schools, all but three are in the north or the Midlands. Sir Michael believes this regional disparity contributed to the resentments revealed in the Brexit vote.

In 2010, David Cameron called the economic imbalance between London and the North of England “fundamentally unstable and wasteful”. In 2014, George Osborne, the first chancellor to represent a northern constituency since Denis Healey in the 1970s, proposed devolving far-reaching powers including economic development and skills to Greater Manchester, and to other city regions prepared to reform their governmental arrangements. The Cities and Local Devolution Act of 2016 gives legislative form to this proposal.

The fundamental case for devolution is the stimulus it gives to local patriotism. A centralised service such as the NHS institutionalises grumbling. For if those who run the service say that things are going well, the government will say, ‘in that case, we will deploy scarce resources elsewhere’. Grumbling, therefore, is essential to improve the service but bad for morale.

Devolution, by contrast, stimulates competition between local authorities, each seeking to prove how well it has done by comparison with its neighbours. That is good for the morale of those working in public services.

But to improve our skills record, radical rethinking is needed. We need, first, a massive expansion of the further education sector, the Cinderella of the education service, which is too often the victim of public spending cuts but is essential for training and retraining the victims of industrial change. Secondly, we need to reconsider the schooling of those whose talents are primarily technical or vocational.

Theresa May favours grammar schools and proposes to increase the freedom of local authorities by removing the ban on selection in secondary education. Her critics say that this will prove divisive. But the defects of the old selective system lay not in the grammar schools, but the secondary moderns. The technical schools proposed in the 1944 Education Act never got off the ground.

The Lords committee proposed ending the national curriculum at 14 rather than 16, so that pupils whose interests were primarily technical or vocational could leave school at 14 and attend university technical colleges, the brainchild of former education secretary, Lord Baker. There are at present just 39 such colleges, with a further 11 in the pipeline. There should be many more.

The Cities and Local Devolution Act challenges local authorities to resolve the most fundamental social problem this country faces: the skills gap between London and the south east, where many of the exam-passing classes live, and the rest of the country. Local government will be judged by its success in meeting this challenge.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, King’s College London


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