With the New Year in full swing, it is safe to say the UK education sector hasn’t got off to the best start, with reports of an acute teacher recruitment and retention crisis and ongoing concerns around a lack of digital skills dominating headlines. Last month Damian Hinds, the man tasked with leading the Government’s response to these challenges, delivered his maiden speech as Education Secretary to the Education World Forum in London. This was the first chance for Mr Hinds to set out his vision and priorities for British education. So what were the highlights of his speech and how did he address some of the key challenges facing the education sector?
Championing the soft skills
The first key theme of The Education Secretary’s first speech was the importance of soft skills and the understanding that an excellent education is about far more than just achieving qualifications. At the centre of this was a commitment to instilling skills like strength of character and resilience in today’s students; qualities which are essential for success in the workplace and achievement in later life. As Mr Hinds told the Forum: “Qualifications are the most important thing you take with you into life but they are not the whole picture when it comes to what you will achieve.”
A particular soft skill on the agenda was the importance of resilience. Schools need to develop students’ self-belief that they can succeed and achieve, teaching pupils how to bounce back from the “knocks that inevitably life brings”. Importantly, Mr Hinds emphasised that these qualities are often developed outside the classroom: “what happens in sport, public speaking, voluntary work, and so on will have an effect on character and resilience”. At the heart of this statement is a recognition that education is more than just a series of excellent qualifications; a schools values, ethos and extra-curricular activities are an important part of instilling essential soft skills in the young people of today which will prove invaluable in the future.
Digital skills key for a thriving future workforce
The second key element of the speech focused on the challenge that rapid technological developments pose for the education sector. Mr Hinds highlighted the responsibility schools have to equip students with the digital skills to succeed in a changing workplace. Importantly, he pointed out that young people now need the skills to be able to “write apps” as well as being able to use them, and that lessons in computing are vital in order to prepare young people for industries that are undergoing significant changes with the arrival of new technologies.
In many ways, this is nothing new. A commitment to improving STEM subjects and digital skills is already high on the Government’s agenda. The need for Britain to produce tech-savvy and digitally informed students to remain globally competitive is well documented. For example, in December 2017 the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimated that there is currently a STEM worker shortfall of 40,000 per year. The Government has already taken steps to tackle this problem and boost pupils’ digital skills; in the last budget Phillip Hammond set aside £42 million aimed at tripling the number of computer science teachers and offered schools an extra £600 for every pupil that sits A Level maths.
Mr Hinds’ speech indicates that he will continue to push this agenda and address the challenges of a changing world. A commitment to equipping Britain’s young people with the digital skills needed for an increasingly technological world looks set to remain a key feature of the UK Government’s education policy for the foreseeable future.
Using technology to tackle the teacher recruitment crisis
A third feature of Mr Hinds’ speech was an awareness of the transformative potential of technology in modern education. He set out a positive vision for the role of technology in the classroom, noting that technology offers new opportunities to “bring new types of content” to the classroom in a way we haven’t seen before.
The Education Secretary also framed technology as a way to reduce teacher workload and alleviate the burden on teachers. Mr Hinds explained: “Technology must have a role in our sector, as it does in other sectors, to be able to ease workload, which is a matter I know of great importance to teachers in this country, and quite rightly so. I share their drive to wish to work on that.”
These comments come at a time when Britain is facing a major teacher recruitment and retention crisis; teacher-training offers have fallen by 37 per cent in the last two years and research has found that a key part of this is the unmanageable and relentless workload teachers often face. In response to this growing crisis the edtech world has continued to highlight the potential for new technologies to help ease this burden, with machines now being able to automatically mark certain pieces of work, generate lesson plans and make tracking pupils’ progress easier.
Through his maiden speech, Mr Hinds not only signalled his commitment to working with teachers to tackle the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, he also lent his support to the role that technology can play in tackling this crisis. The value of technology and its potential to revolutionise learning are therefore themes we might expect to hear more on.
In many ways, the Education Secretary delivered a relatively uncontroversial speech which steered away from discussing specific policy issues; there was no mention of his position on pressing topics like tuition fees, grammar schools or whether sex education will become compulsory. What Mr Hinds offered instead was a speech laying out his vision for British education; one that focused on the responsibility schools have to equip the future workforce with the digital and soft skills to succeed, and one that really understood the transformative potential of technology in education. What we can say for certain is that Mr Hinds will bring a distinctively modern and holistic vision of what an excellent education looks like to his new role and to tackling the challenges facing the sector in the coming months.