We need ‘earn and learn’ in the education system

The Prime Minister?s party conference speech has rightly brought public attention back on Britain?s NEETS – those young people aged 16-25 who are not in education, employment or training.

The ‘earn or learn’ pledge became one of the main post-conference headlines, and it has put the spotlight on a pressing issue: the latest ONS statistics show that, while there were 104,000 fewer NEETS during April to June this year than 12 months previously, the total number still stands at a daunting 1.09m.

This is an urgent matter not only for government and the education sector, but for the UK?s business community, whose needs are not being best served with so many of our young people outside the system. 500,000 new enterprises will be created in the UK this year alone, and they require a next-generation workforce to power their growth and development.

We need change, and a new way of thinking that brings business and education closer together, to better provide for the needs of young people, and ultimately those of the broader UK economy.

Both businesses and young people will benefit if we can instill an ‘earn as you learn’ mentality in our education system – one that puts commercial experience on a par with academic achievement and skills development.

The truth is the status-quo in education is setting up too many young people to fail in the workplace, through no fault of their own. Worse, this is handicapping the capacity of small businesses up and down the UK to be reliable engines of growth. Students are not getting enough experience of what it means to work as part of a business, and there is too much teaching of skills in isolation.

The solution is one in which schools and colleges work more closely with small businesses to deliver an education that is both engaging and relevant for the challenges of the 21st century workplace. In this regard, the commercial context to skills and training is vital: education should not just be about learning how to be a builder or beautician, to take two examples. Rather, it should be about gaining the experience of what it takes to run a construction site, or a salon.

In the Gazelle Colleges Group, we are developing new learning models that prioritise exactly this sort of commercial learning. College owned enterprises, many operated in partnership with local businesses, are giving students the chance to learn within a business environment, and in many cases earn on the job, as they study towards diploma or BTEC qualifications.

This model offers a better deal to students, many of whom do not want to sit through years of further and higher education before they are allowed to start operating in a business environment. The lives of thousands of young people, who may be put off by conventional education, can be transformed by the opportunity to experience the front line of commercial projects: profit and loss, reporting to clients, and hitting deadlines.

If we want to tackle the problem of youth unemployment in this country – and the rate of unemployment among 16-24 year olds is doublethat of the population as a whole – then closer partnerships between business and education will play a critical role. What?s more, they will be key in unleashing the growth potential of the UK?s small businesses.

Fintan Donohue is Executive Chair of Gazelle, which has brought together a group of 20 further education colleges committed to instilling an entrepreneurial ethos.

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