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Productivity challenge: Have we identified the problems that need to be solved?

The last month has seen a flurry of commentary and advice from business leaders around our education system. Some of it repeats the annual bashing of school leavers, but overall it has been difficult to discern what problem we are actually trying to solve.
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Is it the gap between school achievement and workplace readiness? Is it that our qualifications system isn’t fit for purpose in the 21st Century? Is that our teachers are not achieving the right standards to prepare our students for life after study? Or is it that businesses, schools and the government are not working effectively together to help students be successful?

What is the problem?

I learnt a long time ago in business that if you don’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve you can’t articulate a clear vision and mission around which to structure a response. I would suggest it is all of the above and none of the above, in that the most fundamental issue for the UK is solving this productivity challenge. I agree with the government that our education system should have a critical role in achieving this aim. However, I am not entirely convinced that its initiatives, announced last week, go to the heart of the challenge and help all stakeholders understand their role in delivering greater productivity.

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On paper the government’s response appears to be on the right path, as it looks to open up broader opportunities for students and simplifies their paths through the education system. The difficulty though, is that this is a complex challenge with no straight forward fixes. We do need more graduates, because there will be a shortfall as the population gets older and the pressures of global competition increase. But we will also need non-graduates to fulfil supporting semi-skilled roles and we know there will be demand to fill these positions too in the next ten years. 

The analysis suggests the current education system appears to be breaking down when looking to fill these demands. The number of 16-24 year olds with poor numeracy and literacy skills is among the worst in the developed nations. We also perform poorly on technical and vocational skills. Our teachers do not provide consistent advice to students on the different paths through the education system to find rewarding careers. The skills the government wants schools to teach students around STEM are too narrow and do not prepare students for the world of work. 

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Employers and universities are not partnering effectively to identify research opportunities, which could be turned into businesses and therefore more job. Employers are not doing enough to understand how they need to prepare for life after study. Meanwhile parents are being elitist in their focus on university at the expense of diverse career paths for their children made possible through other education and workplace-based learning opportunities, such as apprenticeships.

Inspiring a productivity culture

Rather than getting bogged down in hand wringing and blame shifting we need to concentrate on the positives and the overall objective – inspiring a culture of productivity. There are a huge range of opportunities for the current and future generations of students and we just need to help them understand how they can maximise their potential. The key is to begin that preparation as early as possible, because data shows undergraduates who have had work experience are more likely to be successful in securing employment. That’s why I was delighted to see the Mayor of London has recommended all students receive 100 hours of work experience by the age of 16.

Building the foundations

That said I would argue there are other foundations that must be looked at. Firstly, careers advice and opportunities to experience the world of work are patchy. Schools, business leaders and the government have to do more to give students the chance to understand the different options available to them. 

Secondly, more needs to be done to promote the value and credibility of alternatives to traditional education paths. In part we have probably confused parents by constantly emphasising the need to upskill the UK workforce and for most parents that equates to a University education. 

Finally, we have to do more to help teachers – not criticise them. It is not fair for business leaders to be critical of teachers, especially if they are not giving teaching staff the opportunity understand what the business world requires from school leavers. With greater insight into the work place teachers will have more confidence about what they selling to students and how different education and vocational paths fulfil their ambitions.

Overall, I hope we will hear a more conciliatory tone from all parties towards this year’s crop of school leavers (who, by the way, will make up the future workforce). In the technology industry alone there are so many exciting career paths young people can follow – and a university education is not a pre-requisite. However, we need to get kids excited about these opportunities and give them the chance to experience them. Only then will we be able to deliver our overall goal, which is inspiring a culture, where productivity and the benefits of diversely educated workforce are realised.

Roger Thorpe is chairman of CCE.

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