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This morning’s headlines reporting that “Poor numeracy blights the economy” chime closely with recent research we’ve published at the Centre for Cities. As avid readers of this blog will remember, in November we published a report – Learning Curve – which explored the strong correlation at city level between GCSE attainment in Maths and English and unemployment. Last week we had the opportunity to discuss this further with colleagues from the worlds of business, education and the third sector at a roundtable debate with Gordon Marsden, Shadow Minister for Further Education, Skills and Regional Growth.
Learning Curve highlighted that there remains substantial difference in levels of educational attainment between cities. For example, in 2009/10 74 percent of pupils in cities with “buoyant” economies received 5 GCSE A*-C grades including English and Maths compared to only 67 percent in cities with “struggling” economies.
The effect is two fold. Firstly, individuals without these qualifications will find it more difficult to find employment in a “struggling” city due to an oversupply of low skilled labour. Secondly, those cities already facing economic difficulties will be restricted in their ability to rebound from the economic downturn because they suffer from a shortage of skilled labour.
With these challenges in mind, discussion at the event moved on to the implications for policy – and how to improve educational attainment and employment outcomes against a backdrop of tight fiscal budgets. I noted three key recommendations:
Panelists emphasised the importance of the relationship between the private and public sector in providing career advice, training and employment opportunities. In a post-roundtable interview with Economia Gordon Marsden said that, “to have a highly-skilled workforce, we need government to foster an environment that encourages business growth and the development of people’s skills, which go hand-in-hand”.
While there was agreement that core qualifications remain essential, the issue of interpersonal skills was also a key point of discussion. It was argued that too often young people leave the education system without the required understanding of how to conduct themselves in a professional manner. It was stressed that tacking this is central to improving the employability of school leaves and that it should be a priority in educational policy.
There was general agreement about the importance of apprenticeships. To this end, Gordon called for more small and medium sized businesses to increase their intake of apprentices – something cities are seeking to support through the new City Deals. Here the group was reminded that, although important, a focus on apprenticeships should not undermine support for other skills groups such as graduates
With UK unemployment hovering at 2.7 million and economic growth stagnating, there is a need for decisive action. In response, the Centre’s view is that improvements in English and Maths GCSE attainment should be at the core of the Government’s educational strategy, especially for “struggling” cities. Alongside this, Local Enterprise Partnerships should work with skills providers and employers to provide more effective links between education and employment.
Unless improvements are made, UK cities are likely to see growing skills divides and economic inequalities.
Senior Consultant, City Economics at Arup
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