Video: Educating Norfolk - Businesses count the cost of skills gap among school leavers

PUBLISHED: 09:41 25 February 2014 | UPDATED: 09:41 25 February 2014

Principal Alex Hayes describes plans for the Norfolk's first University Technical College to future students. The college is due to help address the skills gap when it opens in September. Picture: Denise Bradley

Principal Alex Hayes describes plans for the Norfolk's first University Technical College to future students. The college is due to help address the skills gap when it opens in September. Picture: Denise Bradley


Years of an under-performing education system have held back Norfolk’s ability to seize the opportunities that are key to its economic future.

That is the judgement of Mid Norfolk MP and former government life science adviser George Freeman, who said the most important challenge was to produce schools leavers with “good basic life skills: literacy, numeracy, presentation skills and a readiness to work”.

There have long been fears that the skills gap has damaged employment, businesses and the wider Norfolk economy.

Those concerns have grown as high-tech industries such as engineering, off-shore energy and agri-tech become more important to Norfolk’s economy, and jobs in areas like farming, which were often seen as low-skill, become increasingly high-skill.

Last November, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership launched a Skills Manifesto.

The report said: “Time and again employers tell us it is a major challenge to find people now with the right skills and this is limiting the day-to-day as well as long-term potential of their business. Our challenge is to address these current issues and prepare for future skills needs.”

It said a lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills can be a barrier to young people seeking work, young people don’t always understand how employers work, and there needs to be improvement in communication between employers and schools.

Andy Wood, chairman of New Anglia, said: “Often employers are getting young people into their business and finding that in many respects they are virtually having to start from scratch to train them in employment skills. That is mainly the ability to communicate well verbally and in writing, how to work as a team, how to express ideas. These sorts of things are vital to businesses.”

He added: “I think it’s vital because small and medium enterprises are going to make up the majority of the growth in our economy and these are the organisations that are most stretched in being able to provide training and development.”

He said Norfolk’s reputation for education matters because companies look at the skills of the local workforce when deciding where to invest, and added: “Is is damaging to the Norfolk brand? Potentially so, if we don’t do something very quickly about it.”

Mr Freeman said Norfolk needed two things to unlock its potential: the ‘hardware’ for prosperity, such as rail, road and broadband, and the ‘software’, such as better education, skills and training.

He said: “There are a range of key skills. This isn’t just about academic qualifications and science for ‘high tech boffins’. We need our brightest children getting top academic qualifications, yes. But we also need highly-skilled technicians.

“And more of our less-academic youngsters applying their skills in self employment and enterprise: it is striking how many of our top entrepreneurs like Richard Branson were not academic.”

There are signs that the county’s education system is responding to the call for more scientific, mathematical and engineering skills.

Last September, the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, the UK’s first specialist maths and science sixth form, opened in Norwich, and next September Norfolk’s first university technical college, to educate 14-19 year olds to address the skills gap in technicians and engineers, will launch.

Mr Wood was hopeful about the future. He said: “I am hugely optimistic. I think businesses in Norfolk and Suffolk are rising to the challenge. What I have seen from the further education sector is that they are rising to the challenge.

“The headteachers don’t want to turn out people who are not fit for purpose. I’m sure that we are going to engage headteachers of Norfolk and Suffolk.”

What should schools do to bridge the skills gap? Email

Click here to see yesterday’s first part in the series.

What can Norfolk learn from a decade that transformed education in London? See tomorrow’s EDP.

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