Opinion

Business must play its part in equipping education for the future

5 min read

01 February 2014

Educators should welcome this week’s landmark independent report from business leaders on reforming curricula and qualifications to meet the needs of the economy.

As the group including BT chairman Sir Mike Rake has said, soft skills have become as important as academic knowledge, and a qualification which is not a preparation for employment is no longer good enough.

The fact is that for too long vocational education has been seen in this country as the poor relation of academic qualifications. This is an attitude as harmful to the future prospects of young people and small businesses as it is outdated and unreasonable.

When businesses cannot access the skilled talent they need to grow, as 39% of employers surveyed by the CBI and Pearson last year said they could not, we have not just a problem but a looming crisis in our skills base.

As Sir James Dyson said last week when announcing expansion plans for his UK-based R&D facility, our record in producing engineers is pitiful in a global context. He identified a supply gap of 87,000 newly trained engineers a year in Britain, delivering a stark warning: “either we expand here or we will be forced to do it in the Far East”.

If we continue on the current path, an unnecessary disdain for vocational training will become a major flaw in the growth plans of British businesses, many of which increasingly rely on a trained workforce.

And while we should not forget the work government is doing to promote vocational education, notably the ‘Tech Levels’ announced at the end of last year, there can be no complacency when it comes to delivering necessary reforms across the education system, for children of all ages.

That universality in approach is particular important,because as this week’s report acknowledged, we need to train attitude and aspiration as rigorously as we do skills and knowledge.

It is no good simply revising curricula for children at secondary schools and further education colleges. Merely tacking on considerations of employability past the age of 14 will not address the root of the problem we face.

What is needed is a wide-ranging commitment to make classes and qualifications relevant to life and job skills from primary school onwards. That is what Gazelle Colleges seek to achieve through entrepreneurial education, creating a more commercial environment for learning that allows young people to understand the relevance and application of what they are being taught, and to gain experience of what it takes to operate within a business.

Employability must permeate the entire education system, and be reflected in teaching, learning and qualifications. It is on the latter that Gazelle is working with Pearson – who commissioned this week’s report – to create new qualifications that recognise the development of employable attributes as much as they do the acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Not only is this approach necessary to address Britain’s skills shortage, but when done properly it can fundamentally change how children see subjects which are often perceived as dull or unfashionable.

Why, for instance, should science be treated as a static compendium of facts and equations, when it could be brought to life through interactive demonstrations of where this knowledge can be applied in real-life situations?

Instilling employability is not some technocratic plot to remove the rigour or virtue from education as some might assume. Rather, it is an important means of helping children engage with subject areas in which we badly need to improve retention and success rates, to nurture the skills and talent businesses so badly need.

To deliver such change across the board and equip our schools and colleges to meet the needs of business, employers and entrepreneurs must take a role.

That can mean anything from acting as mentors or entrepreneurs-in-residence, to providing more work experience programmes and offering strategic advice on curricula and how they can be tailored to suit the requirements of business.

Government will and does consult extensively with employers when devising national standards and qualifications, but what is needed is a boots on the ground mindset that puts businesses at the heart of the everyday life of a school or college.

To get the best out of the education system and ensure they are getting the skilled talent they need, businesses must first declare themselves in to delivering the reform agenda that has been so convincingly outlined this week.

Fintan Donohue is CEO of the Gazelle Colleges Group