Lockdown has entrenched the skills gap – but this is nothing new


It seems to miss the point to say that lockdown has merely inflamed – and not caused – the problems of the last nine months.

To view the epidemics of domestic abuse and mental health as being solely indicative of pre-lockdown structural problems lets current decision-makers off the hook. Al Jazeera has already alluded to the “end of capitalism”, with COVID illuminating the inherent fragility of the status quo. Again, there is something unnecessarily obstinate about allowing society itself to absorb the criticism for a series of quite recent short-sighted decisions.

Surely some of these issues, entrenched in law and policy, have been stretched and exposed by the last two lockdowns. And surely some of these decisions follow a historical pattern of political myopia. 2020 has, at the very least, drawn attention to the government’s recurring inability to provide timely and effective solutions to nationwide problems.

For one, the closure of business has shed light on the longtime failure to address the skills gap – the mismatch between employer demand and employee ability; even before lockdown, 91% of organisations in the UK reported struggling to find staff with the right skills for the job. But this is not something that should be taking us by surprise. A 47% cut to adult skills spending over the last decade has driven up the number of people unable to retrain for the modern economy. More still, the lack of meaningful vocational options has limited young people to traditional academic paths that no longer lead to guaranteed employment. Lockdown has both enabled and exposed the growth of the skills gap.

The UK has had at least thirty years to settle into its role as a service-based economy but has made little effort to prepare its population. A £22.4b budget for post-18 education is estimated to see only around 16% shared between adult further education, adult retraining and adult apprenticeships, with the remaining 84% directed towards higher ed. As a result, three in five senior business leaders are still reporting yearly worsening of the skills shortage. Lockdown has been a catastrophe for managing the crisis in its own right but equally alludes to a longstanding trend of mismanagement that predates COVID by far.

Then consider lockdown the final nail in the coffin. Outlined on 9 December (and originally proposed as part of the 2019 Tory manifesto), the new National Skills Fund feels now like an admission that the last year – and perhaps the ten before that – has not worked. The fund pledges £2.5b towards addressing the skills gap, offering anybody without one a free Level 3 qualification, and has already been drawn into the COVID recovery plan. Suddenly, retraining and progression are hot topics. It was only in September that the government launched T Levels – a technical alternative to A Levels aimed at providing youngsters with equivalent qualifications in key areas. And within a term, the National Skills Fund is reinforcing the provision with an additional 400 courses for adults and young people looking to avoid the uni-via-A Level route.

On the one hand, there is a point to be made that lockdown itself has caused more harm than good. That would partly answer the question of ‘why now?’ A report by the Department for Education at the end of November shows a drop in apprenticeship starts through lockdown of 45.5%, plus a fall in adult training enrolments of 50.4%. It has not gone unnoticed that this will disproportionately hinder those already on the back foot, with 43% of all apprentices in the two quintiles with the highest deprivation. The mess around furlough has seen employers suspend on average 36% of their apprentices, many not receiving clarification if or when their course would resume. The same report notes that students with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (LDD) have progressed from lower-level traineeships onto full-time apprenticeships this year at a significantly lower rate than the average. This seems slightly different to saying that there is an uninterrupted structural trend underpinning everything. Rather, that lockdown has compounded existing problems by removing pillars of support. It was not by necessity that the last nine months have impacted students benefitting from additional support more than others but as a result of overlooking the effects of a careless and blanket dive into isolation.

At the end of the summer, it was reported that economically disadvantaged students in the remote classroom were lagging behind the average, with the poorest students suffering attainment losses up to ten times that of the wealthiest. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research at the end of the first lockdown found an attainment gap of 46% between the most and least wealthy. Many factors have been implicated in this divide, including lack of access to electronic hardware, lack of efficient study space, and lack of access to student support. Tory pigheadedness may have forced working-class kids to bear the brunt of lockdown suffering, but it is the teaching unions that are still urging for remote learning.

Even more broadly, male students may have suffered disproportionately as a direct result of poor lockdown planning. Boys have been lagging behind in academia in developed countries for the last fifty years. It’s no secret: boys are less likely to go to university, to complete their course and may receive lower grades for the same work. A recent article in TES puts this down to the neglect of wellbeing and mental health in boys. Others have put it down to an inadequacy of the school system to cater to male brain development, as well as entrenched stereotypes about boys and reading. The immediate loss of support through lockdown has allowed boys to fall through the gaps both inside and out of the classroom; the aforementioned DfE report shows a rise in the number of male NEETs – those Not in Education, Employment or Training – through lockdown to 12.1%, where the percentage of women in the same position dropped to 9.9%. 

On the other hand, one feels that the widening of these performance gaps could have been pre-emptively limited through lockdown, even if not entirely avoided. Achievement rates for apprentices have been falling for years and sit 20% lower than those for A Levels. Though one can argue that lockdown itself has caused more suffering than it has prevented, these problems must also be considered in their proper context.

Shadow Secretary of State for Education Kate Green recently said: “When schools are closed, we see deep inequalities become more entrenched, and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds lose out most.” The admission of the failure of the last 12 months is two-pronged then: at once, it admits that lockdown has caused irreversible harm to the most vulnerable, and it also admits that these institutions upon which we depend so broadly have been neglected for far too long.

On the face of it, Boris’ National Skills Fund seems like a good idea. That sweet spot between GCSE level and degree level is heavily undersubscribed and the plan looks to offer adults and young people alike a chance at academic mobility. As retirement drifts slowly out of reach, an ageing population will too have a chance to retrain and adapt to the demands of the job market. And the U.K. may, at last, have a plan for adapting to automation. But as schools, hospitals, and employers linger on the promise of more funding, let us hope that the lessons of the last few months will not go to waste. The sudden urgency of the National Skills Fund reminds us: 2020 has been a mess, but so have the years before it.

Words by James Reynolds


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