"I always wanted to be a graphic designer,” says Kenton Robbins, business coach and regional director for Yorkshire and Humber at the Institute of Directors (IoD).
"When I left school, I sat down with the careers advisor and told her this. She said: 'Don't be stupid, there's no future in graphic design.' Some 25 years later, here I am, in a world led by design."
Plus ça change - or should that be 'nihil mutatur' for those of you educated in the post-war 'golden age'? Education secretary Michael Gove may believe in a gilded age of education and opportunity, but the above is a reminder how easy it is to view the past through one of the five million pairs of rose-tinted glasses the NHS distributed in said 1950s.
From lousy school career guidance to an expectation of university education, from courses in horse care and fish husbandry to classical Latin and History, from selective grammar schools to access for all, education has always been a political hot potato guaranteed to instil fear and worry in any government - and parent.
Now it is back at the top of the agenda once again, thanks to the UK's shocking youth unemployment of 1.03 million, a figure that has been rising since the early 2000s. At 22%, UK youth unemployment is the second highest in the G8, after Italy. One in 10 people aged 15 to 19 is 'not in education, employment or training' (the so-called NEETs) - among the highest in the OECD.
The Audit Commission estimates the cost to the taxpayer of these NEETs will be £13 billion over their lifetime, in terms of welfare payments, costs to health and so forth - and a further £22 billion in terms of loss to the economy and to their families.
Education results are poor, relative to spending in this country. Some 18% of 15-year-olds in the UK do not reach the OECD/PISA baseline Level 2 of literacy. Yet the UK spends more on children than most OECD countries, at just over £90,000 per child from birth up to the age of 18. This compares to an OECD average of just under £80,000.
The UK is slipping down the educational ladder and everyone has a view as to why this is: poor teaching, lack of discipline, or a system based on points and league tables that leads to a perverse incentive to offer qualifications that inflate results. Government interference, government ambivalence, terrible career counsellors that have never worked in business, lazy teachers, stressed teachers, bullying Ofsted inspectors, poor pay, high pay and too much holiday to boot, egotistical heads, bad parenting, badly behaved children… the list is endless.
But is this blame game helping anyone? And where are those that matter most in this debate, the young people society is letting down and the people who want to employ them? For the stark fact is: the gap between the classroom and workplace is growing.
A report jointly released last month by the Work Foundation and Private Equity Foundation reveals there has been a major rise in young people who are either unable, or taking longer, to make the first move from education to work. The report, Lost In Transition?, finds nearly half of NEETs in England now have no experience of sustained paid employment, beyond casual and holiday work. This represents more than 450,000 young people who have so far been unable to make the transition from learning to work.
Focusing solely on academic achievement is a red herring. With the exception of careers where a particular academic attainment at a high level is vital, for example, medicine or chemical engineering, it is less about getting eight A* grades at GCSE and more about helping children with employability skills - the somewhat detrimentally named 'soft skills' that are key to success in today's workplace.
"The labour market has changed considerably over the past few decades. First jobs are now less likely to be in manufacturing and more likely to be in the service sector, where skills such as communication, teamworking and customer service are important. For young people without the soft skills needed to access work in these growing sectors, finding employment has become increasingly difficult," says Work Foundation researcher and report author, Paul Sissons.
The number of young people leaving school and college with serious shortfalls in their employability skills is still high, according to the CBI/EDI Education and Skills Survey 2011. Some 55% of employers say they experience weakness in school leavers' self-management skills and 69% believe they have inadequate business and customer awareness. Even among graduates, the picture is worrying, with weaknesses identified in teamworking skills (20%) and problem-solving (19%).
Meanwhile, almost half of the employers report widespread weakness in core workplace skills among existing employees, with literacy and numeracy topping the list.
"Potential employers such as myself are dubious about the present value of A-levels and degrees now that they are available to the majority of students. We are confused by the new range of qualifications aimed at vocational studies, with the various credits and supposed equivalent qualifications. At the same time, we remain disappointed how often students are not well prepared for work," says Kevin Caley, managing director of Midlands-based company, Business Loan Network.
"As a former motor industry training officer, venture capital fund manager and now the founder of a rapidly growing small business seeking to employ its first junior staff, I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing school-leavers in this economic climate and of the confusion among small business owners. It is a problem that faces us all and unless it is addressed effectively, our economy and society will suffer for generations."
This issue is top of mind for CBI members, says James Fothergill, CBI head of education and skills policy. The CBI is due to release its latest skills survey next week and early indications are little has changed.
"Our members are only so concerned about grades. This is really about competency," says Fothergill. "What consistently comes out top in our education and skills survey are issues around teamworking, communication skills and self-management. Members are most satisfied with IT skills, but unimpressed with school leavers' ability to get up on time and their business and customer awareness. We are concerned there is a mismatch between the level of competency and what is needed to succeed at work."
It is tempting for those in the educational establishment to view such comments as 'education-bashing', but Fothergill is quick to point out that employers are keen to work with schools and colleges to help address this issue. "Business is not going to get anywhere if it carps on the sidelines. Employers need to roll their sleeves up and get involved in mentoring, apprenticeships and providing career information and guidance."
But is it the responsibility of employers to close the gap and take on a teaching role? According to the CBI's study, half of employers now support careers advice and one in four provide school governors. A third have increased their school engagement activity and two-thirds have built links with secondary schools. Two-fifths of employers are providing remedial training to school and college leavers
There is a vested interest in business getting involved in education and helping to close the gap. It enables it to access a greater pool of young people, helps develop leadership skills in existing employees through mentoring and coaching, is good for reputation, can be part of a CSR strategy - and finally helps build loyalty in the local area.
"It is our responsibility to get involved," agrees Debbie Conroy, HR training and development manager at Rank Group, which works closely with Jobcentres in the area of work experience and which is in the process of launching an apprenticeship scheme. "It is to the benefit of the employer, to the economy and to the country as a whole.
"But," she adds, "schools do need to start preparing students so that, when they go for an interview, they have already been given some idea: things such as how to do a handshake, how to put a CV together, ensuring their shoes are clean. It's dog eat dog out there and students need to realise it is no longer about hugs all round - they may be going up against their best friend."
"It has become the responsibility of employers to teach and this is costing them a lot of money," adds Andrew Humphries, a dealmaker for the UK Government Global Entrepreneur Programme and co-founder of the Attitude Academy, which provides corporate-style attitude and motivational coaching specifically for 13-to-18-year-olds in school. "But it is not the employer's role. They are there to tell people how to do their job, not how to do life."
Frank Bowley, deputy director of the skills strategy unit at BIS, the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation, believes, despite an investment of some £50 billion annually in training staff, employers are "not good at engaging more fully with more formal education" and that there may be ways of incentivising business to shift the pattern of this spending to get better results.
"Business should engage with education, but in my opinion it doesn't need to do as much as it thinks," retorts Humphries. "This is not about great big investments and programmes, it is about inspiring and sowing seeds at a young age. It should not break the bank."
The problem, according to Humphries, is that society is not addressing the fundamental questions that are having an impact on how young people view work.
"We have changed as a society and there is a generational difference in the drive of people," he says. "For so long, we have expected that companies should provide employment throughout our working lives. There has been a slow slide into the expectation that society will provide. We expect business to owe us a living, so we can meet our expectations of a house, two cars and holidays. Now we are asking, 'why is the country not providing me with the environment to get all this without much effort?'" He contrasts this with people in the US, where the expectation is to work harder and be better than the competition. "We need a better attitude to work and to take responsibility for our happiness and our lives," he says, "and we need parents to stop abdicating responsibility to the state and business. The problem is, many of today's parents are not skilled themselves and we are going to find we have skipped a generation.
"We now need to concentrate on the next generation, the 13-18-year-olds. And, most importantly, we need to help these kids understand how to set goals, for the short, medium and longer term."
This view may rankle with some, but it chimes with business. The consensus is that, if we are to close the gap between the classroom and education, we need to start earlier with children, foster relationships between teachers and local businesses, including mentoring, put more emphasis on teaching children about today's workplace and the type of skills required and, most importantly, help parents and children to understand their responsibilities.
This is no easy task, so no wonder politicians, the educational establishment and some in business prefer to concentrate on their war of words. But there are ways forward that do not involve ripping up and starting again, taking retrograde steps and retreating to a 'golden age' or throwing money down a bottomless pit.
"The old system is not fit for purpose," says Marius Frank, CEO of curriculum development organisation and awarding body Asdan (see box, right). "We are building our education on sand. But that does not mean we should start again. We need to supplement and complement this system, not dismantle it. One of the fundamental reasons we have still have this problem in education is the tool by which we choose to justify performance and success: the exam.
"It is easy to judge individual success in an exam. It is harder to judge soft skills. The didactic information transfer has failed. It is anticipated that young people today may have seven different careers in their working life and we now need to help develop thoughtful, creative, equipped children who aspire to move from shop floor to boardroom. The way to do this is to legitimise and build out of classroom learning and help the teacher become learning manager, not teacher."
This view correlates with the OECD's Skills Strategy, released last month, which shifts focus from a quantitative notion of human capital, measured in years of formal education, to the skills people acquire, enhance and lose over their lifetimes. "Governments need to raise the quality of education and training at all levels, so that investment in skills development is effective and people leave education not only with a qualification/diploma but also with the corresponding skills," it says. "Clear certification of learning outcomes and recognition of non-formal learning are incentives for training."
The report adds: "The demands placed on teachers to improve student skills cannot be underestimated" - and in addition it suggests teachers work collaboratively with people in other organisations, in networks of professional communities and in different sorts of partnership arrangements.
To enable this, the IoD's Robbins says academics need to be less wary of business people - and vice versa.
"Many teachers are high in IQ, not EQ. If you shake a teacher's hand, they can feel uncomfortable, yet it is the first thing you do in business. Academics look at things differently to businesspeople and can be intimidated," he says.
"But then you also get businesspeople who think teachers have an easy life, getting 12 weeks off a year. They think they can turn up at a school and treat it like being in a business. Businesspeople need to take the time to understand education and the school. There is an opportunity for a group to deliver orientation for school mentors before they go in."
Robbins says businesses need to build trust and coaches/ mentors need to become regular figures within the academic environment, not just dip in and out. CBI's Fothergill agrees and says business cannot expect teachers to innately understand the business world.
"Career guidance is the responsibility of individual schools and you can't expect all head teachers to come up with cohesive schemes. We are expecting people who are not qualified to provide this guidance. Teachers have enough on their plates. We can't hope they understand what is out there," he says.
Rank's Conroy points out: "Many teachers have never had an interview as we know it in business."
But there are signs teachers want business to help in understanding all this. Kim Liddiard, a former HR director at publishing group Haymarket, the Forestry Commission and BskyB, has just launched YourFutureYourLife, a business dedicated to supporting young people by identifying their skills and ambitions, building self- confidence and self awareness as well as an appreciation and awareness about the work environment.
"Head teachers are saying, 'we can help academically, but we haven't a clue how to help our students find the right path or what employers want'. They are crying out for help," she says.
Liddiard is working with individual 14-year-olds and about to start a school pilot. She believes the biggest issue is helping young people move from dependency of childhood to independency in adulthood in an age of 'cotton wool kids' and league tables.
"Parents are doing everything for children these days and there has been a tendency for some parents to view their children as an extension of themselves and their success. Meanwhile, schools want their students to become doctors and lawyers and universities want first class degrees, so they can get their research funds."
The result, she says, is confusion all round for young people who have little understanding about financial education, career options or what lies ahead.
"One student told me she was taking media studies. I asked if she realised there were more people taking media studies degrees than jobs in the media? Graduates are saying they have been sold a pup. They think if they get a degree there will be a job at the end; instead, they are ending up in call centres with large debts."
If the gap between classroom and workplace is to be closed, all stakeholders must play a role. At policy level, the Government needs to consider what 'qualification' means in the 21st century.
Young people should not have to narrow down subjects so early and greater emphasis must be put on skills in the curriculum. Government also needs to consider how it measures performance. Liddiard adds: "As an HRD in business, I always say, be careful what you measure. It changes behaviour."
At educational level, teachers should view business with less suspicion and instead find ways of working with it.
There needs to be more emphasis on career education, rather than it being viewed as what Asdan's Frank describes as "minor fluff in the navel of the school curriculum".
Employers need to develop sustainable relationships with schools, not just ad hoc ones that look good on their CSR report.
There may be a greater role in employer funding in education to be considered by policy- makers. Business also needs to engage with children in education at an earlier age.
As the CBI's Fothergill says: "We tend to forget how capable a 10/11-year-old can be, if given the opportunity."
Parents and children need to take ownership of their future. The role of parents cannot be ignored and the CBI will be considering the employer view on this issue later this year.
Where there is a huge unexploited area is in taking the HR skills of mentoring and coaching into the classroom. If there is one thing business could do immediately, and inexpensively, to help close the gap, it would be to go into schools and inspire.
The consequences to society and the economy of not closing this gap are severe. "We know if young people haven't got on the first rung of the job ladder by 24, they will suffer the consequences for the rest of the lives," says Shaks Ghosh, chief executive of Private Equity Foundation. "Some will never work."
But the benefits of closing the achievement gap in the UK are overwhelming. A study by OECD, in collaboration with the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, suggests narrowing the gap by bringing all students to a baseline level of minimum proficiency for the OECD could give GDP increases in the UK of $6 trillion.
Even a 14-year-old must know that's a lot of zeros.
City & Guilds: supporting more young people into work
Of all the challenges our country faces, the number of unemployed young people will cause the most long-term damage. Unemployment has been rising steadily over the past few years and alarmingly almost a quarter (22.2%) of 16-24-year-olds are out of work.
The good news is that there is a tremendous amount of energy and goodwill within the Government, as well as in the education sector and industry more broadly, to reverse this trend. The £1 billion Youth Contract was launched, there is a renewed focus on apprenticeships, and business bodies such as the CBI are launching initiatives aimed at tackling the crisis.
While we acknowledge and welcome all solutions, at City & Guilds we feel there needs to be a more cohesive strategy across Government that gets to the heart of the issue and, crucially, is geared towards supporting young people. We need to bring together key stakeholders from across education, business and the Government to ensure more young people don't slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, some initiatives, such as the Youth Contract, give cause for concern, because the number of agencies involved overlap - and confusion and inefficiency can arise, all of which is letting young people down.
We need a single group of MPs representing all political parties whose sole focus is to increase youth employment and represent the voice of young people. It would be a group that would debate and critique proposals and provide balanced recommendations on effective strategy to address the issue of youth employment.
Crucially, this group would listen to young people, to create better-informed, long-term solutions.
In February this year, City & Guilds commissioned the first comprehensive study of young people's views around education and employment since the current economic crisis began, in order to bring the experience of young people into the debate.
Based on this rationale and armed with the results from the study, on 1 May we called for an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) with a particular remit to investigate and make recommendations on: careers guidance, apprenticeships for young people, entrepreneurship and work experience. David Miliband (Labour), Stephen Lloyd (Liberal Democrat) and Graham Stuart (Conservative) are all keen to explore the idea further.
We believe that as the UK's leading vocational awarding organisation, we are well equipped to drive this work forward, which will seek to get to grips with the root causes of youth unemployment.
I see the APPG functioning in a number of ways. First, we would work to develop careers guidance that is fit for purpose, engages young people and leads to better employment outcomes. In addition, we would consider the reasons behind the decline in the number of young people (16-19) taking apprenticeships and ways to encourage greater participation. Consideration will also be given to the type of support the Government should offer entrepreneurial young people to enable them to set up in business on their own.
We must take action now to ensure young people get the advice, experience and teaching they deserve. Politicians, employers, policy-makers and sector leaders must start working together to get young people working.
Chris Jones is CEO and director general, City & Guilds
ModBac: well rounded
Charitable social enterprise, Asdan, an awarding body providing courses to 6,000 UK and international schools, colleges, youth centres and training providers, has a mission to build an enduring culture of achievement.
In a study of more than half a million pupils by the Bristol Centre for Research in Lifelong Learning and Education at the University of the West of England, Asdan's Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) was last month shown to help pupils achieve greater GSCE success. The study found young people who passed CoPE raised their chances of achieving A* to C grades in English by 10% and achieving five A* to C, including English and maths, by 5%. The impact was most significant in those in less privileged educational groups.
Now Asdan chief executive Marius Frank, who last year won the HR Excellence Award for Most People-Focused CEO in the public/not-for-profit sector, has set his sights on helping employers and schools find a way through the minefield of qualifications and skills with a tool to help close the gap between the classroom and workplace.
The Modern Baccalaureate (ModBac) is what Frank describes as an award for the 21st century.
ModBac provides a framework to accredit not only high standards and knowledge, but also the application of that knowledge and development of skills in real-life contexts. "The existing position is highly confusing for employers, due to performance measures," says Frank.
"As someone who was a head teacher, I have sympathy for them, what with diploma this, that worth three GCSEs - and so on. It is tempting to always revert to the yardstick you understand - basic GCSEs - and then the system becomes self-perpetuating."
ModBac identifies seven areas of learning and achievement that build competence and character, thereby leading to a whole education experience.
These are: IT/computing; foreign language/international; enterprise/financial capability; work experience/careers education; community/citizenship; personal challenge; and extended project.
Both existing academic attainment through the curriculum and external informal learning are recognised within this - for example, skills gained through belonging to the Scouts or through competitive sport.
The benefit to employers is visibility of school leavers' overall skills and development. For example, the skills passport element takes in self-management, problem-solving, working with others, presentation and discussion, among other areas.
Schools register learners with the programme and this opens a web-based transcript. This keeps a record of qualifications completed and grades achieved, but also enables learners to upload evidence of their wider learning and participation.
The learner ends up with a certificate that shows all the achievements. Each certificate will feature a unique QR code that, when scanned, links to a secure website holding all the details of the learner's qualifications, skills and wider achievement.
"This saves time for employers and gives them a standardised overview of attainment, plus a rounded view of the child," explains Frank. "It is like an electronic CV that has already been securely verified by the school."
Asdan launches ModBac next week with a pilot group of schools. "It is a movement. You don't have to do it," says Frank. "But everything we have done to design the ModBac is there to help children achieve more through a transparent portfolio of evidence of their skills. It helps to redefine what success looks like and we hope businesses give it a chance."
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