Today’s school leavers less ready for work than they were in 1851

Subscribers may be interested in new research from the UK’s online learning provider, learndirect, which suggests that today’s school leavers are less prepared for the workforce than they were in 1851. Looking into the last 160 years of the curriculum, this research shows which subjects have been phased out or kept on, and how this relates to workplace requirements - then and now. In the light of the secondary curriculum review and the research findings, learndirect has made  recommendations for change to ensure school leavers gain the right skills.

Today’s school leavers less ready for work than they were in 1851

New research by learndirect finds out what’s changed in the labour market and how the curriculum has evolved to cope over the last 160 years

School leavers in 1851 were better prepared for the job market than they are today, according to research by the UK’s leading online learning provider, learndirect. Whilst Victorian schoolchildren took classes to match the top jobs at the time, today’s secondary school children are not given lessons to prepare them for the most common industries.

In the light of the secondary curriculum review, which frees schools up to create their own curriculum, learndirect has delved deep into the last 160 years of English and Welsh industry and school curriculum trends.  The research reveals what’s gone in and what’s been phased out and how this relates to work place requirements at the time.

1851: If the Shoe Fits

Learners today may be grateful that some subjects have changed since 1851, as Victorian children were taught how to do housework, prepare breakfast, agriculture, knitting and shoemaking. Whilst these subjects would seem very out of place in today’s classrooms, the top five post-industrial revolution occupations included agriculture (1.64m), domestic services (1.04m), textiles (808k), labouring (375k) and boot/shoemaking (271k).

2011: Digerati/Future technologists

Fast forward 160 years and the workplace has changed dramatically. Over 4m of us are working the tills in wholesale and retail trade, 3.3m are health/social workers and 2.6m prepare tomorrow’s workforce as educators. For the first time, professional, scientific and technical activities (1.7m) are top ten occupations, demonstrating the impact of technology and the rise of the professional services industry in the UK.  Despite still technically in recession in 2011, manufacturing and construction still feature in the top five occupation groups.

Whilst changes to the curriculum since 1851 partially reflect the shifting skill-sets required by employers, there are still clear legacies of older, irrelevant subjects and gaps around core competencies now essential to fuelling today’s fast paced workplace. 


What’s in and what’s out of the job market and curriculum

Top jobs of 1851

1851 subjects no longer taught

Top jobs of 2011

New additions to the secondary curriculum



Wholesale and retail

Information and communication technology (ICT)

Domestic staff

Preparing breakfast

Health and social work


Textile worker



Personal, social, health and economic education





Boots and shoemaker

Boot and shoemaking





Professional services, science and technical



Spinning and lacemaking

Public administration and defence/ Compulsory social security




Accommodation and food




Transport and storage




Arts, entertainment and recreation




Dereth Wood, Director of Learning, Policy and Strategy, learndirect explains: “In today’s competitive and pressurised business world, employers are crying out for problem solving skills and people who can analyse information and make decisions. More time needs tobe spent on learning these crucial workplace skills which will enable people to access the top jobs of tomorrow.” 

Dereth Wood continues: “With the rise of academies and free schools which can set their own curriculums there are now more opportunities to ensure young people are leaving schools with the skills employers are looking for.”

To ensure school leavers gain the right skills needed for the workplace, learndirect has made five key recommendations for change as part of its ‘Ability x Skills + (Knowledge) = the right formula for change?report to improve the curriculum and re-fuel the economy with the skills it needs to grow in the future:

  1. Split the maths curriculum in England - Two separate but linked maths qualifications should be offered at 14-16, including a full and comprehensive maths GCSE for those who want to progress in the discipline and a second, more practical, maths qualification.
  2. Offer Functional Skills as an ‘equal’ alternative to GCSE for young people who continue to study maths and English post 16.  Where appropriate young people who do not achieve a GCSE grade C or better should have the option to study Functional Skills as a standalone qualification.
  3.  Greater focus on vocational pathways.  For those young people who want to pursue a vocational career, having an awareness and understanding at an early age of the priority and emerging sectors in a local area is key and education provision must reflect this local and often changing demand. 
  4.  Work experience matters: Every young person should have the opportunity to undertake a period of work experience during their compulsory education. 
  5.  Greater use of technology in teaching and learning:  Technology has a key role to play in increasing demand for numeracy (and literacy )  and developing self motivated, confident learners – with the potential to enhance the delivery of teaching and learning in schools.

Further analysis of the job market and curriculum trends across the decades can be found in the appendix to this press release.

To download learndirect’s latest report Ability x Skills + (Knowledge) = the right formula for change?visit the Learndirect website.



Turn back time: The job market and curriculum throughout the decades

1901: Turn of the century

The labour force reached 16.4 million by 1901, 75 per cent above 1851.  1901 saw a significant increase in those in the legal and medical professions whilst people left farms in droves agriculture jobs halved between 1851 and 1901. Now, one third of women were in employment, of these 80% worked in domestic services or manufacturing and textiles.

Dereth Wood from learndirect comments: “Such a change reflects the tremendous rise of commercial activity and the growing mechanisation of manufacturing processes.”

1921: Roaring rise of the machine

In post-WW1 England, the impact of the industrial revolution and the end of war saw the rise of metal manufacturing to the number one occupation in 1921, with over two million workers. Agriculture continued its steady decline to fifth place with just over one million workers (1.12m), whilst two million domestic staff worked hard to support Edwardian families as the second most common occupation. The era pointed to the future with 1.2 million employed in transport, as Britain’s railway lines and roads were underway.

To prepare the twenties workforce and ensure a speedy post-war recovery, learners undertook core subjects introduced following the Regulations for Secondary Schools (1904), many of which feature in today’s curriculum. Yet gender-specific lessons prepared the future workforce with job-relevant skills, with civics and manual instruction classes for boys, and needlework, cooking and laundry for girls.

“The problems of curriculum, by their nature, do not admit of any final solution; each generation has to think them over again for itself.” -  The Hadow Report, 1923

1951: Nuclear families and post-modern manpower

Tractors and aprons were swapped for the family sedan and office as agriculture and domestic services slipped from the top five most common occupations - instead England in Wales after World War II saw us hit the shops , supported by 2.4m retail and trade employees. With 1.57m people still employed in public administration and defence, the effects of war still weren’t entirely over, yet rebuilding was well under way with engineering in at number three (1.56m workers), and construction at seven (1.24m). Hinting at the future job market, professional services employed 1.36m people in 1951, sitting just outside the top five occupations.

In the average 1950s sixth form, girls were still taught specific subjects, including nursing, teaching, sewing and commerce, to prepare future retail and trade workers and educators, whilst boys did law, economics, commerce and accounting to support the rise of professional services.

Dereth Wood from learndirect comments: “Recovery from World War II completely shifted the labour market, and a very specific skill set was required to help rebuild and rejuvenate. Six years after the 1944 Education Act which saw the introduction of a free, common and universal system of education for students up to 18, ‘social reconstruction’ was well under way.”

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