How can schools help the UK’s post-Covid recovery in the economy and employment?

Lockdown has exposed millions of voters (parents, teachers and those who are both) to the joys and frustrations of supporting children in a remote learning environment. That pressure-cooker experience gives us a unique opportunity for change.

I am delighted that Adrian Oldknow, long one of UKs most far sighted (as well as enthusiastic) STEM ambassadors has given me permission to reproduce a paper he produced for CCITE.

How can schools help the UK’s post-Covid recovery in the economy and employment?

Adrian Oldknow, 2nd July 2020, [email protected] ,

Through the recent COVID-19 crisis we have seen the vital role which science and technology plays in the detection, treatment and, we hope, cure of the virus.  Despite continuing calls from employers for schools to equip learners with the digital, STEM and 21stC skills which the UK economy needs, most of those leaving education at age 18 or 21 this year do not have the technical and practical skills they need to find work at this time of pandemic recession.  To redress this, Government must act now, working with schools and business, to ensure all learners have opportunities to develop those essential skills while at school.  The UK became a world leader in technological education in the 1980s, thanks to its response to the `challenge of the chip’ crisis.  Fortunately, it has all the components needed to restore its position now, in response to the current crisis in the economy and employment.  This must, and can, be set in motion now, in time to take effect in the coming school year.  This review sets out a practical strategy by which this can be done, based on the creation of a national network of `Engineering Hubs’.  In summary:

  1. Schools need to be aware of what the nation needs and how they can make their contribution. Previous national STEM initiatives failed to win the hearts and minds of school Heads and Governors.  This is a national emergency and schools need to be informed about what part they can play.
  1. Employers can, and should, impact the curriculum. The DfE responded to pressure from the UK creative industries by replacing ICT with Computing, so all learners 5-16 now learn computer programming.  GCSE Computing is recognised as a science subject for the EBacc.  Design Technology needs similar recognition.  Practical projects need to be encouraged and accredited.
  2. Time must be found for practical projects. 21stC skills, such as team-working and resilience, can only be developed through practical work, which also involves applying STEM skills creatively.
  3. Schools need help to retool. 5m BBC micro:bits are now in use in schools in 60 countries, inspiring c20m learners.  £500 equips a school with a class set which, together with electronic components, allows learners to create their own `Internet of Things’ devices.  £15m would equip every UK school.
  4. Schools need help to upskill. Schools are used to welcoming volunteers to help with education.  They need external expertise to help teachers and learners develop their own technical skills and confidence through practical collaborative learning.  Online support is available and needs to be used.
  5. Schools need to use EdTech more effectively. During recent closures, many schools used EdTech effectively to support home-learning.  Government and industry need to inform schools how tech can be used effectively to improve achievement in STEM learning and skills development.
  6. Engineering needs to have a central place in schools’ mindsets, ethos and broader curriculum. The RAEng has developed pedagogy and resources to embed engineering thinking and practice in the 5-16 STEM curriculum. These need to be put into general practice.     
  7. Schools need to collaborate. Schools are used to working in partnerships and clusters such as MATs and Teaching Schools.  Forming `Engineering Hubs’ is a practical way for schools to help each other to address the skills-gap by sharing practice and resources, working with local business and industry.

As we move from lock-down towards a `new normal’, the Government is looking for ways to stimulate a rapid recovery in the UK economy and employment.  In his speech on June 29th at the UK Tech Cluster Group’s `Road to Recovery’ summit, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for DCMS, said: “So we’re living in a different world, and one that requires a different focus. Tech must play a leading part in our recovery, and my department has been working hard over the past few weeks and indeed months to put it in the best possible position to do so.  Of course, one of the great things about the UK is that we are a nation of innovators, a nation of entrepreneurs and a nation of inventors, and our tech industry is already very strong.  Many of you already know that we are third globally, only behind the U.S. and China, and consistently outperforming the rest of Europe.  But I want us not to be complacent but build on that strength.  With that in mind and during this ‘Rebuilding the UK’ event, I can announce that the government will be publishing a new digital strategy in the Autumn – one that reflects the new post-COVID reality.”  While he cites significant changes in the way society has functioned during lock-down, such as home-working and remote doctors’ appointments, there is no mention of its impact on education and schools.  In fact, there is no mention of schools, education or even digital skills whatsoever.

Clearly there are significant real short-term issues needing to be addressed to mitigate potential massscale youth unemployment, such as Lord Young introduced 40 years ago with the Youth Training Scheme.  Lord Baker wrote in the Sunday Times on 21st June about an impending “youth unemployment tsunami” as this year’s school leavers seeking employment compete with this year’s graduates for a severely depleted number of jobs. “Most of these 18-year-olds, having studied principally academic subjects at school, do not have practical and technical skills such as teamwork, digital design, problem-solving and the ability to make things with their hands.”  He proposes providing crash courses in 2020/1 to give that cohort training to equip them with such skills.

Equally importantly, we need to consider how schools can be helped now to ensure that future cohorts, currently in school, do develop those technical and practical skills essential to our economy, and to their employability.  When schools reopen in September, it will not be sufficient to deliver the same, principally academic, curriculum more efficiently by smarter uses of technology.  A way has to be found to help schools refocus their mindset, ethos and curriculum on better preparing learners to prosper in the uncertain world ahead.  That must include the development of those digital, STEM and 21stC skills which employers have consistently pressed for from schools.  This needs to start as quickly as possible, with minimum disruption, minimum cost and maximum effect – a pretty daunting design brief.  Fortunately, we already have a very well-stocked armoury of experience, equipment, resources and materials on which to draw.  We just need to pull them together in a smart way, and for Government and Business to help with some seed-corn funding for kit in schools, and on-going human support for teachers.

The details of that armoury, and how it comes to be so well stocked, are available in a separate CCITE document.  Many organisations have expressed their on-going concern over the `skills gap’ between what employers need, and what schools provide.  These include parliamentary Select Committees’ inquires.  The Commons’ Science & Technology Committee had `Closing the STEM skill gap and `Digital Skills both in 2016/7, and the Lords’ Digital Skills Committee had `Make or Break The UK’s Digital Future’ in 2014/5.  Despite that, as Lord Baker observed, technical and practical skills are still not embedded in the curriculum of most schools, at least not in England.  This is something which the `new normal’ for education 5-19 must now put right for all learners in the UK.  In the new world of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, imagination and creative skills also need to be encouraged.  CNBC carried an article in August 2019 under the title: Creative skills are critical to protect workers from being replaced by robots, expert says.  That expert is John Abel, who is now Technical Director of Google.  “You need to bring out — in all of your workforce — creative skills, because as we know with the modernization of IT, and specifically with A.I. (artificial intelligence) machine learning, anything that’s a logical processing job will be at some point replaced, so what we’re asking our staff to do is use their creative skills across all age groups (in) the workplace because that’s the unique advantage.” …”Abel noted that for previous generations, the skillset they gained in education could last for their entire career — but he urged companies and workers to realize this was no longer the case.  Last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) named creativity as the third most important skill employees needed to thrive in 2020 as automation continues to infiltrate the workplace. Complex problem solving and critical thinking were the WEF’s first and second most important skills.

By contrast, the Scottish Parliament’s Education & Skills Committee published its `STEM in the Early Years report last November, as part of Scotland’s ongoing national `STEM Education and Training Strategy for schools. “The Committee believes the Scottish Government needs to be able to demonstrate, through clear measures, progress towards: -improving access to training to increase teacher and early years practitioner confidence, especially in technology and engineering, and -improving access to adequate internet connectivity and other resources to support STEM learning experiences, including in remote and rural areas…  The Committee is therefore recommending more of a focus on long-term interventions in school and early learning settings when the Scottish Government is measuring progress towards the STEM strategy’s aims….. The Strategy aims to build Scotland’s capacity to deliver excellent STEM learning, and to close equity gaps in participation and attainment in STEM. It also aims to inspire young people and adults to study STEM, and to provide a better connection between STEM education and training and the needs of the labour market in Scotland.”  That needs to spread throughout the UK.

During the lock-down, we all became aware of the remarkable ability of the NHS to respond.  We rightly celebrate the tremendous efforts of those in the front-line, especially in health care.  But we should also be celebrating the contributions science and engineering have made to enabling us to control the pandemic, such as the hi-tech equipment used for monitoring in Intensive Care Units, and the biomedical expertise going on in labs behind the scenes in analysing tests and developing antidotes.  Science and Engineering must now be key pillars within schools’ curriculum throughout the UK.

Government can, and should, take steps to address this – after all, it is itself one of the major UK employers of digital and STEM skills.  In England, the EBacc could easily be modified by extending the `Science’ group to `Science & Technology’ and the inclusion of Design Technology and Engineering qualifications.  Incentives might be given to schools and students to encourage greater take up of science and engineering pathways.  Students might submit portfolios of project works demonstrating their technical and practical skills.  But there are immediate steps which schools could be taking now, on their own, or together, to address the skills-divide, assisted by Government and Business.

Collectively, Government and Business can help schools purchase kit based on the world-leading BBC micro:bit, developed to support the BBC’s `Make IT Digital’ initiative.  £500 will buy 20 micro:bits and compatible equipment – enough for a class of 30 to work in pairs, with some spares for the teachers.  These can be used, for example to support projects to design, test and make autonomous and remote control systems in Design Technology and Computing lessons, and for building instruments to gather data from experiments for further analysis and modelling in Science and Maths lessons.

For an investment of around £15m, every primary and secondary school can be retooled.  The versatility of the micro:bit means that children as young as seven, who are learning to program in Scratch, can also build and control simple circuits using the MakeCode editor.  But also that older students can build their own Internet of Things IoT connected devices using the Python programming language.

Thanks to organisations such as the ARM School program ASP, the Computing At School group CAS, the Micro:bit Educational Foundation MEF, the National Centre for Computing Education NCCE and STEM Learning, there are all the necessary lesson plans, project resources, tutorials, class management tools etc. available free on-line, as well as award-bearing professional development for teachers and challenges for learners.  During recent school closure, many schools showed remarkable resilience by quickly adapting to supporting home-learning using such online resources and learning platforms.  Schemes are now in place to help ensure that learners have access to online support whether at home or in school.  The DfE’s `EdTech’ strategy needs to be developed to include using technology-enhanced learning to better provide leaners with digital, STEM and 21stC skills.

As well as updating the tools teachers can deploy to support STEM education and skills, Government and

Business need also to support schools with skilled volunteers to help them embed skills.  The Careers & Enterprise Company have paved the way with Enterprise Advisors, volunteers from business and industry who help schools develop better Careers Advice.  Organisations like `Founders for Schools’ and the `Education & Employers Taskforce’ provide a network of employers willing to engage directly with schools.  STEM Learning manages a national network of STEM Ambassadors.  The IET’s regional networks have School Liaison Officers who organise educational support by its members.

In 2012 the CBI published its `First Steps’ report on how business can work with schools to improve education and skills.  In 2016, the CBI, IBM and the Royal Society published `Making education your business: a practical guide to supporting STEM teaching in schools and colleges’.  This provides a toolkit of advice on how business can support teachers: “Teachers are a crucial part of inspiring pupils to pursue STEM subjects – in some cases the single biggest influence. By collaborating with teachers, employers can help to ensure confident, well informed and inspiring teaching which helps motivate young people to study STEM and see where these subjects can take them.”  The 2019 CBI/Pearson `Education and Learning for a modern world’ review developed this further.  “The power and impact of education goes well beyond the workplace but understanding how employers perceive how our education system is working or not working is vital… The United Kingdom and countries around the world face major challenges throughout the 21st century: an ageing workforce, globalisation, technological change and an urgent need to address societal inequalities.  How politicians, educators and employers react to these challenges is important, and the CBI believes education and learning has a key role to play in addressing them.”

In terms of STEM subjects in schools, while Science and Maths are explicitly there, Engineering & Technology are not.  The nearest equivalents are Design & Technology and Computing.  Since 2013, the Royal Academy of Engineering RAEng has lead an extensive programme of research, R&D, resource development, publication and teacher support to show how engineering skills and thinking can be best developed within the 5-16 curriculum in schools, starting with the `Thinking like an Engineer’ report.

This identified the key `Engineering Habits of Mind’ EHoMs: “ The report identifies six engineering habits of mind (EHoMs) which, taken together, describe the ways engineers think and act: (1) Problem finding, (2) Creative problem solving, (3) Adapting, (4) Visualising, (5) Improving, and (6) Systems thinking. `Thinking like an Engineer’ makes a compelling case to suggest that, if the UK wants to produce more engineers, it needs to redesign the education system so that these EHoMs become the desired outcomes of engineering education.”

An important aspect of the `Learning to be an Engineer’ research was the development of a `Tinkering approach to the curriculum.  This has seven key aspects:

  1. Pupils are engaged in purposeful practical problem-solving
  2. Pupils take ownership of the design and make process
  3. Pupils embrace and learn from failure
  4. Pupils’ curiosity and creativity is responded to
  5. Pupils demonstrate mastery from other curriculum areas
  6. Pupils draw on a range of thinking skills and personal capabilities 7. Pupils’ learning experiences are guided by a whole-school approach.

The approach has been extensively taken up by groups of primary schools working together using practical micro:bit-based projects, supported by local expert volunteers and secondary schools.

Tomorrow’s Engineers, working with STEM Learning and the Careers & Enterprise Company, supported 15 new ENTHUSE partnerships in 2017.  One of these, in the Solent LEP led by the Gosport & Fareham Multi-Academy Trust GFM, had both primary and secondary school improvement groups.  With support from the Micro:bit Education Foundation and local employers like Airbus, BAE, QinetiQ and the Royal Navy, it developed the `Engineering Hub’ model to help schools embed engineering principles in their STEM curriculum using the tinkering approach – particularly at KS2 and KS3.  This model has now been taken up in rural and coastal communities in Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Norfolk, and West Sussex.  Some of these are in existing clusters like larger MATs, Teaching Schools Alliances and Science Learning Partnerships; others are in neighbouring schools where there were previously no such local groups.  They have support from organisations such as the ERA Foundation, the RAEng and the RAF.

It is interesting to note that Scotland is leading in respect of a cluster approach as well!  “Education Scotland highlighted, in terms of the reach of its work, that: Our big target is to reach every school cluster in Scotland in the next four years, which is challenging and ambitious. One of the key aspects of the work is the need to take a very strong cluster-based approach, because primary schools and early learning establishments cannot do the work on their own… The value of STEM cluster working to teachers and early years practitioners was apparent throughout this inquiry. The Committee considers that the Regional Improvement Collaboratives should have more informed strategic oversight of cluster work.”

So, we commend the `Engineering Hubs approach’ as a national strategy to help schools refocus on preparing their learners with the technical and practical skills needed by employers to help the UK economy recover from the post-Covid19 recession.  It is a much-needed partnership between education, Government and Business.  The investment of £15m now will be amply repaid in the future.






Data Center
Data Management