Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We cannot allow the digital skills divide to transfer to a new generation

The spread of digital skills reveals where inequalities already exist, writes Claire Kober

The correlation between where people live, their socio-economic circumstances and whether they have basic digital capability is well evidenced. This is concerning not only because of the digital exclusion it causes – a recent survey showed that 22 per cent of adults in Blackburn had not used the internet in the last three months, compared with seven per cent in Surrey – but also what it means for the future. Put simply, we cannot allow the digital skills divide to transfer to a new generation when we know that these skills are essential to securing well paid, secure employment in the current economy.

In Haringey, our mantra as a council is that we cannot be in the business of managing decline. A new economy means new opportunities for our borough and our young people. It was with this in mind that in autumn 2015, I launched the Haringey science, technology, engineering and mathematics commission to challenge the borough by making recommendations about how we could put Haringey at the forefront of improved education. The commission, chaired by Labour peer Sally Morgan, was tasked with really looking at what could be done on the ground to make our education system fit for a modern economy. We wanted to look at the range of skills young people will need to have access to the best career opportunities, and how we could support them through the curriculum, extracurricular activities and work-related learning. We wanted to improve and inform young people about Stem subjects and the careers it can lead to. And we wanted to raise the aspiration for Haringey’s education system, not letting the social barriers that young people face, particularly in the east of the borough, be an excuse for educational underachievement.

Through evidence sessions with businesses, experts, teachers, school leaders, governors and students, we gained a huge range of evidence supported by a review of the extensive secondary literature and research data. This exercise underlined to us that this is an exciting time – there are potentially unprecedented opportunities for the next generation – but it is one of great risk as well. If the education system does not adapt quickly then we face losing out in what is a global race. We will be denying our young people the opportunities they seek and deserve.

Research by Deloitte and the University of Oxford suggests that by 2030, 30 per cent of London’s jobs could be done by machines. Importantly, they found that in this environment jobs that pay over £100,000 a year are eight times more secure than jobs that pay less than £30,000. Skills shortages in Stem industries is a very real challenge.

The largest deficit is in numeracy. Seventeen million adults have numeracy levels no better than a primary school child. Research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that England compares unfavourably to other developed nations. Nine million adults – a quarter of people aged 16 to 65 – are deemed to lack basic skills, having low levels of numeracy, literacy or both. While in most countries younger people have stronger basic skills than those approaching retirement, in England this trend is reversed. And it is clear that the employability challenge is changing – employers gave evidence that two classes of jobs in particular will continue to grow: occupations that require a blend of high level technical and creative ability; and those requiring emotional intelligence, such as the medical and caring professions.

The evidence we gathered enabled the commission to develop a vision for Stem in Haringey. Our vision starts with the contention that every school leaver has both the educational achievements and employability skills to thrive in the modern economy. Students should be taught a balanced and modern curriculum with mathematics at its heart, keeping pace with technology and innovation. To support this, Haringey needs to be the most attractive place in the country to be a science, technology or mathematics teacher. 

At the heart of our vision is a determination that the borough should have better options for post-16 further education study and training. And it is in this area that we have made greatest progress, securing Ada, the National College for Digital Skills – the first new further education college in the United Kingdom for over 20 years – which is now located in Tottenham. Ada is a specialist college which aims to connect students with the digital skills to fill the 130,000 tech jobs that are available each year in the UK. It offers A-Levels as well as more vocational qualifications and higher level apprenticeships. The college has strong industry connections that bridge the gap between education and the world of work. The council has recently given planning permission to an iconic permanent home for the college just metres away from Tottenham Hale station. We see the building as a symbol of the borough’s determination to connect our young people to the opportunities of tomorrow’s world.

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Claire Kober is leader of the London borough of Haringey. She tweets at @ClaireKober

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Photo: Wokanpix licensed under creative commons

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Claire Kober

is leader of Haringey council

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