Nicky Morgan: closing the skills gap and our plan for education

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan speaks at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on closing the skills gap.

Thank you so much Michael [McShane, Director of Education Policy Studies, AEI] for that introduction, and it’s an absolute delight to be here today with the AEI to discuss this important subject.

Concern over the skills gap isn’t new, in fact it’s been a feature of political discourse for almost as long as I’ve been involved in politics (which is over 25 years for anyone interested).

But the need to address this gap has only grown over that time, particularly as other nations, outside of the west, are seeing their skills base and economies accelerate at an unprecedented rate.

Now more than ever we need to ensure that more of our young people are leaving education, not just with the skills to succeed in modern Britain, but to compete in an increasingly global economy.

That’s why the coalition government of which I’m a part has put addressing the skills gap at the heart of our plan for education.

Our efforts to do that have focused in 5 key areas:

  • increasing the number of young people studying the key science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), subjects
  • attracting and developing more STEM teachers
  • increasing the rigour and responsiveness of vocational qualifications
  • creating strong links between schools and employers to open young people’s minds to the opportunities available and boost their employability skills
  • improving the quality of apprenticeships as an alternative to university study

Studying STEM

So turning now to the first of those:

We all know that the STEM workforce is vital to growth and the economy. Our research base misses out when we are not drawing scientists and engineers from as wide a talent pool as possible, leading to a shortfall in the technology and engineering skills that our economy needs.

This shortfall starts at the pipeline of young people studying maths and physics at school and university.

The problem is that for too long, young people have been left with the misconception that STEM subjects only lead to a narrow set of careers, the sort of careers that involve you wandering round in a lab coat.

It’s now abundantly apparent that this misconception could hardly be further from the truth, with STEM subjects adding a significant salary premium and opening the doors to a wide range of different subjects outside what we’d traditionally regard as the sciences - careers ranging from the creative industries to law.

Now of course that’s not in any way to do down the arts subjects, as the angry masses on Twitter have been implying I’ve done over the past week. It doesn’t have to be an either/or between the arts and sciences.

But what we do know is that too few young people have traditionally been encouraged to study STEM subjects, and in particular too few young women.

As well as my role as Secretary of State for Education, I am also Minister for Women and Equalities, and with both of these hats, I think it’s a disgrace that in Britain:

  • only 19% of girls who achieved the top grade in physics exams at age 16 go on to study physics up to age 18, compared to 49% of boys
  • just 11% of girls who achieved the top grade in maths at age 16 go on to study mathematics up to 18, compared to 26% of boys

And we all know these decisions by young women have started to impact on our wider economy. They’re the reason that:

  • the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe - just 9% of engineers are women compared with Sweden (25%) and Germany (15%)
  • only 14% of entrants to engineering and technology first degree courses in 2012 to 2013 were women, compared to 80% in subjects allied to medicine (which includes nursing) and 59% in biological sciences

The fact that too few young women go on to have careers in the sciences is also one of the causes of the UK’s gender pay gap. I’m delighted that figures released just today show that the gap is now smaller than ever before. But one of the reasons that it persists at all is that those careers in the sciences, where women are underrepresented, pay on average 19% more than other careers.

To tackle this imbalance and get more young people, and in particular young women, studying the science subjects, we’ve launched a range of new initiatives.

The centrepiece of these is the Your Life campaign, supported by more than 200 of the UK’s leading organisations from business, educators, civil society and government, to show how science and mathematics leads to exciting, successful careers.

This campaign has 3 key aims:

  • to change the way young people think about maths and science by raising awareness of the exciting, wide-ranging careers these subjects can lead to
  • to increase participation in maths and science studies at age 16 and beyond, with an ambitious target to increase the number of students studying maths and physics at A level by 50% in 3 years
  • to increase the opportunities for all people, and particularly women, to pursue a wide range of careers that need skills in science, technology, engineering and maths

This programme will work alongside targeted schemes with industry groups such as the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Physics to target young people directly and to encourage them to study STEM subjects.

These initiatives operate on the fundamental principle that the government alone can’t address the deficit of young people studying STEM subjects. It has to be done in conjunction with the world of business and the world of academia. Only together can we present young people with an enticing and compelling vision of the opportunities that studying STEM subjects can bring.

STEM teachers

But of course we can’t encourage young people to study STEM subjects beyond school if they’re not being inspired by excellent teachers within school.

That’s why the second part of our skills package has been focused around increasing the supply and quality of STEM teachers in schools.

Britain has faced a historic recruitment problem when it comes to STEM teachers, and it’s easy to understand why:

  • many science graduates study science because they want to go into academia
  • those that don’t want to go into academia see better salary and career prospects in the private sector, particularly as the economy improves
  • many scientists can’t imagine themselves standing at the front of a classroom and feel they lack the skills to be teachers
  • to meet our target for physics we would need almost our entire pool of physics graduates to go into teaching

So in addition to the measures we’re taking to get more young people studying STEM subjects, we’ve also invested in support to encourage those STEM graduates to go into teaching. These measures include:

  • generous bursaries for new teachers worth up to $31,000 alongside scholarships of just under $40,000 that are awarded by respected subject organisations in physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science
  • launching a 3-year programme to recruit postdoctoral maths and physics researchers as ‘chairs’ in maths and physics to train as schoolteachers with the aim of engaging and inspiring students to progress to more advanced study in these subjects (the chairs are given a significant salary uplift to encourage them into teaching, which is sponsored by the private sector; and crucially, the chairs are given the opportunity to spend time back in their universities taking part in further study, allowing them to keep their links with the academic community)
  • introducing a national network of 32 new maths hubs to raise the standard of maths education, backed by £11 million of funding - these hubs are outstanding and inspirational schools that act as centres of excellence and seek to match the high standards achieved in East Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and China
  • providing £8 million to a regional network of 5 science learning centres and 50 local science learning partnerships to provide science teachers with access to high-quality professional development

The early results of all of these schemes have been extremely encouraging, with the maths and physics chairs programme oversubscribed by almost 4 to 1. However, there is still more to do, particularly in terms of upskilling the existing workforce and encouraging more returners to the profession, which will be our priority for the coming months.

Vocational qualifications

Of course, a focus on academic subjects alone simply won’t be enough to address the skills gap.

I firmly believe that for too long vocational qualifications have been the poor relation to their academic counterparts. For all of the talk of ‘parity of esteem’, vocational qualifications have all too often been seen as ‘easy options’ for schools to force less-able students to study, out of a fear they might otherwise drag down their league table scores.

That’s why one of the achievements of this government, of which I am most proud, is the introduction of sweeping reforms to vocational qualifications.

One of the first acts of our government was to commission a study by Professor Alison Wolf, Britain’s leading expert on vocational training, into the state of vocational education. The results can only be described as shocking.

The Wolf review found that at least at least 350,000 16- to 19-year-olds were working towards vocational qualifications which were of very limited value, either to them or to employers. As a result, at age 19, these students found themselves with very few employment or training options.

She also found those young people faced a bewildering array of qualifications, almost 4,000 at the last count, but with no clarity about what would help them get a job or university place.

Wolf’s report found that the consequence of this was that many students studied certificates in low-value subjects like ‘working with others’ - that falsely claimed to be the equivalent of academic courses such as A levels - or studied certificates that were simply useless. One particularly certificate Wolf identified in ‘sports development’ wasn’t recognised by employers, didn’t qualify you to work in a leisure centre or gym, and didn’t get you a place on a sports degree at university.

Following the report, a series of radical and far-reaching reforms were introduced to address this issue and ensure that the vocational qualifications available to students always meet the highest standards.

The main reform was the introduction of a new group of qualifications called tech levels that essentially replaced all the pre-existing vocational qualifications. They equip a student with specialist knowledge and skills, enabling entry to employment, apprenticeship or higher education. They offer students the chance to learn technical skills as an alternative to, or alongside, academic A levels. In some cases they can provide a ‘licence to practise’ or exemption from professional exams.

Each tech level is far more rigorous than previous qualifications, as they must meet stringent criteria such as having external assessment, synoptic assessment and grading.

Crucially, all tech levels must be signed off by either a professional or trade body or have signed letters of support from 5 employers in that particular occupation, in order to give us confidence that they are valued by employers and the wider economy.

Every vocational qualification available to young people now provides a direct line of sight to the workplace and has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of vocational qualifications that we recognise from almost 4,000 to just over 200.

At the heart of this reform of vocational education has been our desire to ensure that employers are playing a leading role in ensuring that young people are leaving schools which will address their skills needs.

At the same time, we recognise schools have an important role to play in connecting those young people with potential employers - to make them aware of the range of careers and opportunities open to them.

Just as in the US, the UK jobs market has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years, with many people working in jobs today that didn’t exist when their parents left education. The idea of a ‘job for life’ has virtually disappeared.

The best schools prepare young people for the reality of working in 21st-century Britain throughout their studies - they not only provide an excellent education but place aspiration, work experience, inspiration and mentoring at the core of what they do.

Over the past 4 months since my appointment I’ve been speaking to some of the best schools when it comes to developing employer links, and hearing about what they do to prepare young people for employment. That includes:

  • hearing inspiring speakers introduce them to a world outside their regular communities and ideas of work
  • visits to a variety of workplaces
  • widening advice on options to include apprenticeships, entrepreneurialism or other vocational routes alongside A levels and university
  • high-quality work experience that properly reflects individuals’ studies and strengths, and supports the academic curriculum
  • mentoring and support for those at risk of becoming disengaged to help build the confidence and character needed to ensure a successful career

And we’re holding schools to account for what their pupils go on to achieve. Perhaps the key innovation in this field is the introduction of destination measures to show what happens to young people after they leave education. By tracking pupils more effectively than ever before, we will gain a better understanding of what works in preparing young people for life and work.

The new destination data will record how many pupils from each school achieve a positive outcome such as moving into education, training or employment.

This has the bonus of putting employment outcomes alongside education outcomes (such as a university degree) as a perfectly valid alternative for young people. We hope to build much stronger links between schools and employers in each local area.

Schools will also be held to account by our school inspectorate, Ofsted, for the careers advice and guidance that they deliver.

Improving the quality of apprenticeships

Finally, perhaps the greatest success of the coalition government when it comes to the workforce of tomorrow has been the exponential growth in apprenticeships.

As with vocational qualifications, for too long it has been the case that apprenticeships were seen as ‘a soft option’ for difficult pupils, which rarely led on to the offer of a job or wider prospects. Or they simply weren’t an option, because apprenticeships only existed in a narrow set of manufacturing careers.

So our government’s vision has been clear. To create a new norm that when young people leave school, they choose between two equally prestigious routes to a great career - university or an apprenticeship - or, with higher apprenticeships, to do both at once.

We want these apprenticeships to offer real jobs and top-quality training to develop the practical skills and experience that employers want.

Our reforms mean that all apprenticeships must be paid jobs, last for at least 12 months, involve meaningful on-the-job training, and must include English and maths for young people who haven’t yet achieved the required standard.

As a result, the number of apprenticeships started each year has doubled since 2010. We committed to delivering 2 million apprenticeships in this parliament and we are on track to achieve this. This means there are now more young people in apprenticeships in England today, working for more employers, and in more sectors, than ever before.

And top apprenticeships are now just as competitive as places in leading universities. Apprenticeships are oversubscribed 10 to 1 on average, and a recent survey found that the majority of young people would like to do an apprenticeship.

Our ambitition for the next parliament

The challenge now is to keep increasing the number of apprenticeships at the same time as increasing the quality of apprenticeships.

We are expanding apprenticeships into new occupations such as cyber-security, nursing and the legal profession. We are also investing millions of pounds into higher apprenticeships so that they are genuine high-quality alternatives to full-time university degrees for our best and brightest young people.

Further reforms will make apprenticeships more relevant to employers and more demanding than ever before. We’re giving employers control over the content of apprenticeships, empowering them to design high-quality apprenticeships that meet the needs of their sectors.

More than 400 employers and professional bodies across 37 industries and occupations - from huge employers like PwC, Microsoft and BMW to small businesses like The Test Factory and Walter Smith Fine Foods - have signed up as apprenticeship ‘trailblazers’, working together to write new, world-class standards, designed by employers for employers.


As I said when I started talking, concern over the skills gap isn’t a new thing, and it certainly isn’t something that we’ll see going away in a hurry. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be trapped in a cycle of hand-wringing.

I passionately believe that the reforms which the UK government has introduced, reforms which are at their heart a partnership between government, business, schools, colleges and universities, are bold and game-changing measures which will reap dividends for the British workforce in the future.

But of course there’s a huge amount more to do, and I’m looking forward to hearing what ideas I can steal from the US to take back home as my own! Back over to you Michael.