There are many causes of uncertainty that we can do little to prevent – global economic competition, and the increasingly transformative effect of digital technology on our society and economy, for example.
But there is one cause of uncertainty that we can and should influence – and I appeal to the Fellows of the RSA to join me in campaigning to do so.
Funding is in crisis in our state schools; especially in the primary schools that begin our children’s education.
From the University of Oxford, to MIT, to the blue-chip management consultancy McKinsey, to mainstream media publications such as the Economist, there is widespread concern that ongoing, and increasingly rapid developments in digital technologies such as machine learning and robotics will lead to the increasing automation of a significant proportion of jobs over the next few decades. McKinsey suggest that up to half of the activities that people are currently employed to perform will be automated within the next 30 years.
In fact, these challenges are already with us today. Since the arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s, digital technology has contributed to widespread economic growth - GDP in the United States has nearly doubled, for example. But the business models enabled by digital technology have not necessarily distributed the resulting wealth equally - over the same period, median household income in the US has barely risen at all. Unemployment amongst young people in many European countries is between 20% and 50%. In the UK, there has been no increase in average earnings so far this decade, and young people in particular have become worse off. The situation is unlikely to improve for many years.
Many economists and observers of the technology industry believe that we are part-way through a decades-long “Information Revolution” that will transform our society and economy just as much as – if not more than – the Industrial Revolution.
Those experts disagree whether the dominant impact of the technologies of the Information Revolution will be to remove existing jobs through automation, or to create even more new jobs that exploit the capabilities of those new technologies – which was ultimately the effect of the Industrial Revolution.
What they all agree on, though, is that the jobs of the future will require completely different skills than the jobs of today; and that we can barely conceive what those skills might be. Again, this trend is already visible today: for example, whilst the number of manufacturing jobs in the USA is currently rising , prospective employees need increasingly sophisticated technical skills in order to manage the robotic machinery that now performs most of the work.
So one thing we can be sure of is that our schools today are not teaching our children the skills they will need to be successful in the future.
Government, industry and our professional societies and institutions recognise that challenge and are responding to it. But the majority of their focus is on the teaching of advanced technical skills in Secondary, Higher and Further Education – for example, the UK Government recently announced the establishment of new "Institutes of Technology" amongst a series of measures to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills in the UK workforce.
But children and students are only able to benefit from those opportunities when their primary education prepares them with excellent basic mathematical, lingual, and technological skills.
Further, as digital technology, Artificial Intelligence, and robotics transform our society and economy, not only will those skills become more sophisticated and important, but our children will also need improved skills in the areas that technology is less likely to automate: artistic creativity, entrepreneurial and commercial flair, and the empathy and social skills that create value in human interactions.
Our primary schools are not in a position to teach our children those skills to the degree that they are required today; let alone in a position to transform their approach to deliver the skills of the future.
Funding for primary schools is falling due to a combination of Government policies. Funding has been frozen since 2015 and no longer rises with inflation; primary schools in cities have had their funding cut in order to increase funds for rural schools; schools face increased liabilities for staff pensions, National Insurance and the Apprenticeship Levy; and funding for children with special education needs and disabilities has been reduced. The effects of these policies will be exacerbated by the increase in inflation caused by the devaluation of the pound sterling following the vote to leave the European Union.
As a result, class sizes are increasing, and the number of teachers and teaching assistants is falling, as is the availability of extra-curricular activities. This dramatically reduces the ability of primary schools to address the specific learning needs of individual children, whatever those needs may be.
My local MP, Roger Godsiff, and I have written letters asking for help to address this critical challenge to Ms. Justine Greening MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation; Mr. Nick Hobbs MP, Minister of State for School Standards; and Mr. Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science.
So far, their response has been dismissive of the extent of the challenge. They have referred us to the Stage 2 Consultation on the Schools National Funding Formula.
The proposed new schools national funding formula would result in 54% of all schools receiving increased funding; with 13.5% receiving an increase of more than 5.5%. That’s just not enough. Inflation alone will wipe out those increases, even for the relatively small number of schools that receive more than a token increase in funds.
The proposal also claims that “no school will face reductions of more than 1.5% per year or 3% overall per pupil”.
That statement bears no relation to reality – especially when inflation is taken into account. Schools in Hall Green in Birmingham, for example, will see a 10% reduction in funding per pupil in real terms by the 2019/2020 school year. The government’s manifesto promise to maintain funding per pupil in cash terms has been broken for 34 out of 35 schools in the constituency.
And this debate really, really should not be about 1.5% here and 5.5% there. We need dramatic increases in funding and resources for primary schools if they are to help our children face the challenges of the future.
The task of our primary schools is to prepare our children to possess skills and to seek jobs in 20 years' time that we cannot currently imagine. The magnitude of that challenge surely demands that we prioritise significant increases to their funding and resources.
They are simply not being given the resources to address this once-in-a-century challenge that we - or more accurately our very young children - face. I cannot imagine anything more important than investing in our children's ability to make a success of their future. Our government is failing us in the most important way possible - undermining the future livelihood of our children - by continuing its current policy of reducing that investment.
I am working with a committed and passionate group of parents, staff and Governors at my son’s primary school within the Hall Green constituency to address the School’s funding challenges in any way that we can, in large part through local initiatives to raise funding and to lobby our local authority, Birmingham City Council.
But the national debate is of crucial importance. In truth, Hall Green is a relatively middle-class, middle-income area. Our communities of parents will be able to provide a great deal of support to our schools.
Set aside, for a moment, that it is surely an insanity that we do not treat the education of our youngest children as a national priority for public funding. More urgently it is fundamentally wrong that the people who will be the biggest losers in this situation are the people who need the most help: the children and families who live in the poorest and most persistently deprived areas of our cities, where communities have the lowest level of local resources to compensate for the decline in funding from the national government.
I will be campaigning vigorously on this issue both at a national level and locally to support my son’s own school.
I would be very grateful to be contacted by any RSA Fellows who care about these challenges, and who are either already campaigning on similar subjects or who are interested in doing so.