Upskilling our workforce means upskilling our teachers first

9 Nov 2019, 5:00

If we are to embed the increasing digital skills that industry demands in our teaching staff, colleges and businesses need to collaborate with a much more flexible and supportive approach.

I see first-hand, day-to-day how the world of work is changing. As executive chair at Weber Shandwick, I advise organisations from large international FTSE100s to small regional start-ups – and the vast majority are transforming, with increased automation and greater use of digital technology.

To embrace the opportunities and overcome the challenges these changes present, we need to overhaul our education system, embedding digital into tertiary education so we can train people with the skills that industry demands.

To do this, of course, we need students to gain digital skills, but if teaching staff cannot identify or do not have the right knowledge to impart, it is difficult to see how anyone will progress.

According to a survey of more than 6,500 of its teacher members published this week by Jisc (a not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions in the education sector), fewer than 15 per cent get time to innovate or are recognised for developing digital skills. Worse, just 14 per cent of those in further education agree that they receive reward or recognition when they develop digital aspects of their role.

This is a problem, not least because an equivalent Jisc survey exploring the digital experiences of students tells us that those in tertiary education look first to their teachers. Of the 13,389 FE students that responded, 48 per cent said their most likely source of digital support was the teachers on their course – much higher than fellow students, friends and family or online resources. How can staff meet that need if they are not given time, support and recognition for developing their own digital capabilities?

Work-based learning has to be embedded into the curriculum

I have long been in favour of closer collaboration between teaching staff and industry to ensure that what is being taught is relevant and up to date. Part of the challenge is that, by the time students get into work, the knowledge they have gained at college is redundant because technology has moved on.

Work-based learning has to be embedded into the curriculum. That goes for teaching staff as well as students. But that change is perpetual, and we need to look further ahead. Compared with successful OECD countries, UK investment in training is poor. We consistently underinvest in upskilling our workforce, which has led to a significant drop in productivity.

At Weber Shandwick, we tracked our investment in training over five years. It was no surprise to see that profitability and productivity increased in line with spend.

UK businesses cannot stand on the sidelines. They have to engage with the skills system to ensure that we embed digital within colleges and the workplace. If we want students to transition to employment “fully formed”, and workforces that keep up with developments, teaching staff must have up-to-date knowledge.

That is why the Independent Commission on the College of the Future is asking what we want and need from our colleges in ten years’ time. It is about ensuring we have the expertise across the college workforce and a comprehensive system of continuing professional development.

Introducing a greater focus on work-based learning models for students and teachers is a priority, and it requires industry to step up to the challenge. Systems-change, leadership and collaboration have been key themes identified across all of our investigations, and nowhere more so than in respect of digital.

Our whole education system has to change. What was right a decade ago is not right today, and what is right today won’t work ten years from now.

That is why we want to hear about what is, and isn’t, working. We need to think long-term and about sustainability. Ultimately, that means colleges and businesses adopting a much more flexible and supportive approach to teaching staff.

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