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We need to be flexible to address future skills needs, says education secretary

Damian Hinds opened the Education World Forum by saying flexibility will be key in addressing industry and labour needs in an uncertain future

None of us knows what the future holds, so we should be flexible and open-minded about how the labour market will be affected by an uncertain – and probably tech-driven – future, according to secretary of state for education Damian Hinds.

In his opening speech at the Education World Forum, Hinds said no one can predict exactly what the future is going to be, and that this is even more true when trying to predict how technology will develop.

“The truth is, no one really knows what exactly the future of work and what the future of the Labour market may be and we will need to be able to flex and adapt and adjust,” said Hinds.

Young people who are going through education now may end up in jobs that do not currently exist, and most jobs now require an understanding and ability to use technology that may not have existed when the workers now filling those roles were children.

Hinds highlighted the fact that most modern technology, such as tablets and smartphones, were “unimaginable” when he was younger, but it is now something young people are growing up with and have the ability to use.

However, many are wary of the concept of “digital natives” who grow up with exposure to technology, because they are not fully aware of the implications that come with using technology even though they are more adept at using it, he said.

The computing curriculum, introduced in 2014, is one of the ways the government has tried to feed the tech talent pipeline by expanding children’s understanding of technology.

“We want to go further than having young people who are just able to work with technology and we are taking every chance to make sure we make technology work for us,” said Hinds.

But many teachers are concerned about their ability to deliver the computing curriculum effectively, with almost 70% saying they do not have the skills to teach coding.

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Hinds said a percentage of an £84m investment to improve computer science teaching over the next five years would go towards additional training for the 8,000 teachers currently responsible for delivering computer science instruction.

But alongside skills such as coding, firms are increasingly seeing the need for employees with both technological and soft skills. Hinds said this is something that cannot always be taught, but could be encouraged at school through support, standards set for students to follow and activities such as sports, public speaking, or other extracurricular activities.

“The hard reality of soft skills is that actually these things around the workplace and these things around character and resilience are important for what anybody can achieve in life, as well as for the success of our economies,” he said.

As well as delivering education to young people, Hinds emphasised the importance of “lifelong” learning to ensure adults also pick up the skills needed, such as digital skills, to ensure learning does not “stop when your education ends”. The government plans to deliver this through a “national retraining scheme”, he said.

To understand better what digital skills the UK needs now, and may need in the future, the government recently launched a survey to gather information on the characteristics of an advanced or specialist digital workforce and how best to develop future policies to close these skills gaps.

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