Two-thirds of the UK’s expanding businesses rate critical thinking as the ability they most want from future employees. But it is low on the list of skills they feel confident in sourcing. Why? Ask, Michael Gove.
Levelling up depends on access to well paid jobs. But it also depends on there being an adequate pool of talent to fill future job vacancies. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, wrote last week in the New Statesman that “without an effective and efficient skills system, there can be no levelling up…” He went on:
“So we are going full steam ahead with our skills reforms, … revolutionising the route from learning to earning… developing a system that meets the needs of learners and employers and will enable the economy to flourish in the future.”
There is some way to go. Currently there are more than 1.3 million job vacancies in the UK, with around 37,000 in the North West of England. But far from meaning that there is full employment in the region, this points to a shortfall between the skills that employers want and what they can expect to get.
The influential ScaleUp Institute (SI), which represents over 6,000 UK companies – 9% located in the North West – found that six out of ten of its members saw access to talent as the biggest barrier to growth after access to markets – both, no doubt, exacerbated by Brexit.
Scaleups are important because, as their name suggests, they are expanding businesses, already employing more than 3.2 million people. In a foreword to the SI’s 2021 Review, Paul Scully MP, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, wrote: “Scaleups are crucial for driving job creation, generating inward investment for the UK and acting as motors for regional economic growth. [The Review] is a valuable collection of data and expert insights…”
Scaleups rank critical thinking highest on the list in-demand skills
The SI’s most recent survey showed that 70% of its members placed critical thinking in the top three of the most wanted future skills, followed closely by technical (69%) and social skills (66%). It is not alone. A recent report by the CBI, headlined: “A radical new strategy for lifetime reskilling …”, also placed critical thinking high – second, in fact – on the list of “abilities that employees will need in the next [now present] decade”. It forecasts that 16 million people will need to have critical thinking and information processing, while 21 million employees will need ‘basic digital skills’.
The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) paints a similar picture (Skills Spotlight, New Statesman, 11-17 February). It identifies team working, critical thinking and communication as “the top skills critical to employability”, describing them as the “transferable skills that help workers to be productive at work, handle change, and solve problems.”
Yet the CMI declared in a recent report that barely a quarter of students can confidently demonstrate the range of most needed skills, and that four-fifths of employers believe graduates do not arrive in the work-place with the skills needed to be work-ready.
If the premium placed on critical thinking comes as any surprise to politicians and educational policy makers, it should not. Business has been telling them for years that the ability to think independently, rationally, and critically is what today’s workplace needs.
Clair Souter, a senior university careers consultant, told NW Bylines: “Over many years employers increasingly look for self-managed learners who can reflect competently, think critically, solve problems, and make well reasoned decisions regardless of their academic qualifications… and whatever their role.”
On an anecdotal note, one registered scale-up selected at random with a head office in Preston – Saphire Utility Solutions – is seeking a waste-water technician. The job description states that the successful applicant would “….hold an HGV licence, have problem-solving, listening, critical thinking, team-working abilities, and a customer focused approach.”
It is hard to imagine many applicants turning up with a c.v. to match these criteria. Indeed, when the respondents to the SI survey were asked which skill sets they were most confident of securing, the tables were turned, and critical thinking was relegated to the bottom end.
A critical gap
But this, too, should be no surprise. One major casualty of Michael Gove’s radical reform of the examination landscape in England and Wales was the GCE AS/A Level exam course in critical thinking. Tens of thousands of sixth form and FE college students studied for the award between the late nineties and 2016, when it was taught for the last time.
What was lost from the curriculum was a discipline that encouraged and enabled young people to think for themselves; to analyse and evaluate claims, arguments, and evidence; to process data, make informed decisions, draw inferences, test hypotheses; and more. Like any new and progressive educational initiative it had its teething troubles and met with its fair share of criticism, some of it valid. But instead of being provided with the funds and resources to improve and develop the syllabuses, it was scrapped – as much for ideological reasons as educational.
This was not just a lack of foresight. It was an act of educational vandalism. It left a gaping hole in the curriculum. Whether Gove was personally responsible for the decision is not known, but it was plainly consistent with his own thinking, and with that of the then ghostly Dominic Cummings. It gave almost excusive primacy to the acquisition of knowledge, a dogma made clear in a speech to the Independent Academies Association (IAA) in 2012, wherein Gove claimed that that the abilities required for a healthy society “can only come from the initial submission of the student’s mind to the body of knowledge contained within specific subjects.”
It may take business interests to reinstate what Gove saw fit to demolish in his short tenure at the Department of Education. Perhaps in his latest role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, he might even recognise and acknowledge the serious consequences of his mistake.