by Claire Aiken
AS the speed of change and evolution precipitated by Covid continues to accelerate at a rapid pace, I’m reminded of Lenin’s famous quote ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’.
The inference of course, refers to the tendency for societies to remain stable and secure for prolonged periods. However, as we look towards the final quarter of 2020, it seems a long time since we’ve had any such stability, or indeed predictability.
Whatever your view is of Tony Blair’s ‘hand of history’ reference back in 1998, it resonates in the current climate on a global scale, as we all look for leadership and solutions to address the seismic political, economic and societal shifts including Brexit, climate change and of course Covid–19.
The Blair government which came in the aftermath of Black Wednesday in 1992, as we know was far from perfect, but it had a new vision and public spending at its core. ‘Education, education, education’ was front and centre with a firm commitment to put classrooms, lecture theatres and social mobility at the top of the political agenda.
Like recessions that have come before in 1992 and 2008, the current situation presents us with the challenge of where investment and policy should be focused to best support recovery. There is of course no easy solution for global governments with public spending already at unprecedentedly high levels.
But many, including the UK, Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive, should be commended for setting out their ambition with a renewable and skills led recovery. And of course, crucial to skills, is education in all its forms which must once again be a central pillar of our medium and long–term economic strategy.
With the digital age of working now firmly upon us and the growing influence of AI and machine learning increasingly influencing our traditional revenue generating industries, our professions, sectors, careers and means of working are in an evolving state of flux.
Future generations will find themselves in increasingly competitive, globalised job markets with many sectors including tech, finance and professional services seeing the traditional, regional working constructs and borders of old becoming obsolete with remote working becoming the new normal.
The most valuable currency for the UK and island of Ireland in the digital age will be skills, and the requisite quality and spread of skills can only be realised through a well–funded and world class education system. This is undoubtedly the seminal moment, of a generation.
After 10 years in power, Blair’s Labour government could point to a 48 per cent increase in ‘per pupil’ funding and 35,000 more teachers in jobs than in 1997, representing a 5.6 per cent GDP spend in education. With the UK only just achieving the international average per capita spend at the time, this affirmed the significant underinvestment there had been.
Fast forward to 2020, when we assess local challenges of educational underachievement, social immobility, resourcing for schools and attainment, we are faced with a breaking point moment which requires long term strategic thinking, and transformational outputs not dissimilar from that delivered in a decade by the then UK government.
A report from Northern Ireland policy think–tank Pivotal has focused in on this subject and urged the Executive to prioritise education as a matter of urgency.
On Covid and the need for government to sufficiently equip schools for the months and years ahead, it said: “A failure to adequately resource educational recovery could lead to a large cohort of children failing to reach their potential.”
The report, looking towards the latter part of this century, stated: “From the mid 2030s and for the 50 years following that, approximately a quarter of the entire workforce could have lower skills and a lower growth rate if the learning gaps caused by lockdown prove significant, with long lasting negative social and economic consequences inevitable.”
Whilst startling, it is positive to see new tech solutions including ‘TOM’ (Teaching Online Masterclass) and OpenNN, machine learning tools to help students catch up on lost learning available globally. As we, both at regional and national levels stare down the barrel of further regional lockdown and restrictions, more of these innovative solutions are needed to address educational underachievement and isolation for students in the short, medium and long term.
In Northern Ireland, it’s crucial that we use our devolved spending powers to champion and protect our local education sector, much like our cherished health service, and the recent injection of £42 million by Minster Peter Weir is a welcome step in this regard.
The challenges within the exams process and the educational implications of Covid will potentially see a significant uplift for new third level admissions this autumn, with UK University applicants rising by 3.5 per cent. This demand has been supported by the Executive, locally, with Queen’s University receiving Executive funds to facilitate between 500–1000 extra places.
The current crisis spending offers short term solace for our education system, however, a cursory glance at the energy sector and its designs on a green recovery provides a blueprint and reminder of the need for far reaching transformative change across public policy.
Like retrofitting properties to enhance green energy capability, using current educational infrastructure we can innovate and adapt our existing learning systems in order to equip our youth for the a new era. The requirement for modern tech, vocational, and cognitive skills presents opportunities to shake up curriculums and allow our economy to reap the rewards.
If education is the passport to the future, our preparations must start now. Covid has shown that no sector or line of work is immune from difficulty, and so, as we prepare for a further period of transition in 2021, it is vital that our economy and core sectors are ready to meet those challenges head on.