Ignorance: Beveridge would be heartened by the educational progress but ashamed of the skills inequality

Looking back at William Beveridge’s Britain, he was right to denounce ‘ignorance’ as a giant on the road to reconstruction. Then, roughly 80 per cent of children left school by age 14 – with little more than an elementary education. Fewer than one in a hundred went to university, and we can infer what types of backgrounds they hailed from.

Were Beveridge able to glance 75 years into the future, he might have been heartened: students in England are in education or training until age 18, seven in 10 20-something’s have achieved an A-level or equivalent, and four in 10 a degree. Educational attainment has spread across class, gender and ethnicity. It has underpinned unprecedented growth in living standards.

And yet we have someway to go. Compared against other Organisation of Economic Coordination and Development countries, England and Northern Ireland’s average literacy and numeracy skills rank towards the bottom. Working age adults have the fourth highest level of numeracy skills inequality; young adults have the highest. Inequality in numeracy skills worsens between the ages of 15 and 27.

Some, though not all, of this is attributable to post-16 options: a majority of young people do not follow the ‘A-level to university at 18’ pathway. Yet the choices open to them are confusing, with hundreds of courses and apprenticeships that vary widely in terms of funding, quality, future earnings and regional availability.

There is hope that apprenticeship reforms and the recent the Skills Plan, which will streamline post-16 technical education, can make headway on clarity and quality. But since the latest reforms intend to improve qualifications’ relevance by putting employers ‘in the driver’s seat’, we need a better sense of employer demand. Work-based training goes disproportionately to those with higher-level qualifications, and since the financial crisis those in lower-level occupations have experienced the largest falls in training time. Renewed employer interest in apprenticeships has generated some excellent opportunities but many apprentices are hired into low-pay sectors and a majority at lower levels, with less than a quarter of lower-level apprentices progressing onto higher levels of training.

Beveridge was right to see education as a component of reconstruction. We are also right to see it as an ingredient of productivity and wage growth. The state can help activate it through more equalising financial (and political) investment, some of which is underway.

Employers need convincing – and more cajoling – to invest in and better utilise those in the bottom half of the skills distribution.

It says a lot about our attitude to post-16 education that we spend virtually all our time debating universities and no nowhere near enough time on the poorly structured non-graduate route still taken by the vast majority of young people.

Changing the debate, let alone the changing the outcomes for young people and businesses is, of course, a significant challenge. But then again, so was Beveridge’s.


Kathleen Henehan is a research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation


The December 2017 edition of Progress magazine has a Beveridge at 75 focus. Read other articles in the series, including on the other four ‘giants’ and how they fair today, now.