The Great Population Debate

The recent IOD debate on population attended by around five hundred people from all parts of the business community and the third sector certainly stimulated a lively debate.

Moderated by Alastair Stewart the ITN news reader, the debate was kicked off with a keynote by Mark Boleat, Chair of the Policy and Resources Committee of the City of London.

In a wide ranging speech he asserted that Island population was difficult if not impossible to control, given Jersey’s inclusion in the UK common travel area, the levers to moderate population growth; housing and work were already being utilised, and that the introduction of net migration targets risked the Island going backwards economically, at a time of fragile recovery. He went on to say that ultimately de population was a greater risk.

Sadly much of this thoughtful contribution was not captured in the JEP headlines or coverage the following day, which led instead with “Our education system is an embarrassment” as banner headline.

Mr Boleat went on to explain that the education issue was not that we don’t have talented youngsters, nor dedicated teachers, but rather we are not turning out sufficient numbers with attainment levels that are comparable to our key competitors.

As a panellist, as well as pointing out where employers are looking for improvement, I also said that from a finance industry perspective much has been done; we now have the certificate in financial services widely available as a study option in our schools, and foundation degrees in financial services, IT and other relevant subjects can all be studied here in Jersey through partnerships with UK universities. It is the collaborative work between the Education department, Skills Jersey and Jersey Finance that has led to this improvement in educational choices.

We must though consider whether our traditional approach of benchmarking to UK academic achievement standards is still valid. The recently published OECD PISA scores for 15 year olds show that the UK is ranked 26th in Mathematics, with Singapore ranked 2nd, Hong Kong ranked 3rd and Switzerland 9th.

In reading and science the UK is ranked 21st and 19th respectively, with Hong Kong ranked 2nd and Singapore ranked 3rd in both subjects.  In addition we turn out proportionately far fewer people with level three qualifications and good degrees than many other countries.

Jersey currently measures success largely in its relative position to the UK, and although it does better nationally, it does not always do as well as London or the South West. The issue here is not the talent pool of our children, that is undoubted, nor the dedication of our teachers, we are simply aiming at the wrong target.

We will not compete successfully with Switzerland, Luxembourg, Singapore and Hong Kong if our system targets educational attainment levels that are significantly below the thresholds achieved by our key competitors.

The finance industry for its part has worked hard with educationalists to improve the supply of relevant qualifications and we are running a work stream arising out of the Strategic International Finance Centre review on education, exploring how we might further develop our capability. This work is currently being aligned to the work of Skills Jersey in order to ensure we capture coordination and synergy opportunities.

The fruit of this work saw 310 Jersey school leavers and graduates recruited into the Finance Industry in 2013, an all-time high.

It is good to see our local paper championing the cause of our young people and applauding the efforts of our hardworking teachers, but levelling the charge of  “branding less academically gifted children as failures” is not helpful, and misses the point.

Education should be about equipping rounded, thoughtful, respectful individuals, individuals who are literate, numerate and prepared to contribute their individual talents as citizens, and to play a meaningful part in the society that has nurtured them.

Whatever path they chose, whether professional, vocational, trade or academic, we do our children an injustice if we do not aim to deliver the best globally benchmarked education that we can.

Education is not an employment production line, but we do owe it to our children to equip them to make the most of the career opportunities that are available. It is that aim that should be at the very heart of this debate.

Download PDF Copy Article HTML to Clipboard