Tensions in Education Policy: Learning to Compete

By Tomlinson, Sally | Renewal, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Tensions in Education Policy: Learning to Compete


Tomlinson, Sally, Renewal


Using education as a tool for successful competitive participation in a global economy remains a major aim of governments around the world. By the later twentieth century post-industrial countries, notably the USA and the UK, had put the work ethic and competition in the global labour market at the centre of policy.

Encouraged by the ideologies and the funding policies of the major international organizations--the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank--a major aim of the New Labour government from 1997 was to raise levels of investment in education, from both public and private sources, and raise qualification and skill levels, with the declared aim of improving economic competitiveness. In the last days of the Conservative government while Ministers were instructing young people to 'learn to compete' in education and the job market, (DfEE, 1996), both for their own economic futures and to improve the competitiveness of the national economy, Gordon Brown and colleagues were giving some thought to how this could be achieved (Brown et al, 1996), and one of Brown's first speeches, at the London Guildhall in 1997, pointed out that 'we cannot run a first-rate economy on the basis of a second rate education system'. While this was somewhat unfair to an education system which had suffered eighteen years of Conservative 'reforms', it also oversimplified the relationship between education and the economy.

There is certainly an argument to be made for regarding young people as human capital and encouraging (or requiring) them to stay in education and training, with continual skill upgrading, but there are problems with a simple equation that says: improve education and skill levels, and the countries' position in a global market economy will automatically improve. This article points out some of these problems, and makes some recommendations for future policy. While the classic liberal assumption that education is an investment that increases returns in the labour market may now be more questionable, policies that encourage a work culture, a 'give us a job' (preferably a well-paid one with flexible hours and opportunities for further training) mentality, may well pay off in terms of both individual needs and the needs of the economy.

Skills for the future

From the 1970s to the 2000s it was debatable whether the plethora of training schemes and new qualifications, the reorganizations of post-14 and post-16 education, the rise and demise of quangos (including TECs, created 1986, abolished 2000), had actually had much effect on most parts of the British economy.

Economic success was largely the result of financial and capital movement, and as Marginson (1999) pointed out 'education cannot in itself generate capital movements or create wealth'. Over some thirty years, manufacturing industry largely disappeared abroad, its jobs being replaced by low-paid service employment. Despite an optimistic Skills Strategy envisaged to run from primary to higher education (DfES et al, 2003), government assumptions that skills and knowledge acquired in school, college and university would automatically translate into productive activities in the workplace and satisfy employers, have not yet worked out as envisaged.

Although by the 2000s there was an enhanced role for employers via new partnerships and Skills Councils, many employers continued to be reluctant to acknowledge improvement in education or training levels or to invest in developing the skills of their own workforce. With a long history of deploring low levels of literacy, numeracy and communication skills, employers continued to complain that education failed to deliver the 'right' skills, while themselves failing to provide sufficient work placements, and were increasingly demanding higher level qualifications for jobs not previously needing them.

It was also questionable as to what skills were actually being learned. Sennett (1998) described the way computerised technology was used in the baking industry in the USA. …

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