Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What is education for?

According to a recent series of questionnaires, eight in ten businesses believe school leavers lack the basic skills needed for work and that more should be done to get them prepared for employment. The research was undertaken by  Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) which found that poor literacy skills were the most commonly cited problem for 59 per cent of businesses. Communication and numeracy skills were also reported by 55 per cent and 56 per cent of owners respectively as falling short of acceptable.

The survey was conducted across 2,774 business owners who employ 16-17 year olds, 77 per cent also found that school leavers had little awareness of general business.

"The admission prompted two thirds of FSB members to say that improving pupil's basic literacy and numeracy skills would better prepare them for work."

The FSB said it was concerned that young people ill equipped with these skills would find it difficult to compete in the UK's tough job market - figures last week revealed that a million young people are out of work in the UK.

Education in this, and I don't doubt other countries, has been a political football for all of my life, whether you are talking about Grammar Schools, Comprehensive Schools, O' Levels, CSE's GCSE's or a Baccalaureate the rights and wrongs of each and your feelings about each is to a large degree influenced by your political beliefs. Whilst political dogma helps keep most of us entrenched in our old ways the world is moving on and yet some fundamental features of the human condition remain and are beyond simply changing one exam board for another.

 A recent report commissioned in the U.S.A but covering every major developed nation in the world showed that we have now reached the stage in our development as industrialised and post industrialised nations where the number of people unemployed but lacking in skills has been overtaken by the number of job vacancies which require skills. It was the first time I have ever seen such a report but it didn't surprise me as it would have done say thirty five years ago, back then when I worked my student summers in factories there were people about who couldn't read or write but who could operate basic machinery, drive a Fork Lift or pack boxes - little or no skill required. Those people who at school who were hopeless at English, Maths, Science or the Humanities were often more than capable at traditional crafts such as woodwork and metalwork and would leave school and find employment in trades relevant for their skills in various industries, those who really struggled would end up at the bottom of the employment ladder but they would still find work in an era where employment levels in a factory led economy were high. Time has moved on and those jobs that were once done by people who had either slipped through the education system untouched by the process of learning or were simply not bright enough to cope with its demands are no longer employable except in very menial tasks, unfortunately those menial tasks are the lowest paid and are often awarded to immigrants for whom any wage is better than what they were earning 'back home'.

The political right see the last twenty years of British education as the road to hell in a handcart, the 'dumbing down' of a system whilst also failing to acknowledge that some people cannot cope with exams at the end of two years of learning and that the module system did at least combine course work with exams, but not in a way that is acceptable to Michael Gove. Unfortunately as the start of this post shows simply ticking a box or selection of boxes does not guarantee that you can adjust to the demands of the 'real world'. That's not to put down the module system completely, a lot of work does go into the supporting material that should at least acknowledge the ability to gather information - even if it is only via a search engine. What we need to do as a society is take a deep breath and say that we don't need 50% of the population going to university or that we don't have any 'traditional' industries in this country any more (we do but they aren't the same sort that those of us born between 1945 and 1970 grew up with). More and more people are starting their own businesses using the skills they have acquired, through education or by other means, and they need basic skills to get out there and sell themselves.

Not having the basic skills to compete as individuals in the work place puts everybody at a disadvantage and many companies in the service industry have been overcoming this for years. Visit any one of the 'big five' supermarkets in the U.K and you will see that subtle changes have been taking place in food packaging, originally intended to be of help to those employees who didn't have English as a first language they are now seen as a benefit to those who struggle with English as their first language. That however doesn't help the many thousands of companies in the U.K that serve the aviation industry, the motor car industry or many other light engineering companies who use modern technology where basic skills are required to operate CNC machines. It doesn't help those industries who rely on basic numeracy skills when it comes to packing parts in boxes for shipping or read and correlate orders.

Last week I saw a feature on Accountancy graduates in one of the newspapers, it stated in the two page spread that even if you weren't numerate that shouldn't hold you back when seeking a career in accountancy. I was aghast. Only a few days earlier I had sat next to a company accountant looking at a set of management accounts on a computer screen that didn't balance, I could see it straightaway, she couldn't, what was more worrying was that the software company who had produced the software hadn't noticed it either.

Michael Gove was on TV, a short film of him and Clegg was shown visiting a school on the day of his big announcement. Gove was seen asking a class of teenagers how many would like to go to University. It struck me that it was the wrong question, although I accept it was staged for the camera crew, we were back in Blair territory once more, the question I would have asked would have been, "How many of you here would like to leave school with recognised qualifications in core subjects that will make you employable?" I have a lot of time for Michael Gove, not because, as Rod Liddle put it, 'he winds up a lot of leftie teachers' but because he does actually care for education and always has. I do however think that like almost all politicians from all sides of the political divide he has never experienced 'real life' and just as David Cameron made a big mistake during the Olympics of harking back to the golden days of sports education for all when we won bugger all (Munich and Montreal anybody?) Gove is confusing dumbing down in final exams with a lack of preparation and teaching skills way beyond people who would be thinking about University places.

This isn't the 1950's this is 2012 and we need to recognise that the things that made Britain 'great' once upon a time are long gone, we have to adapt. We also have to recognise that when we do things well we do them very well and lead the way in many fields but we also have to address the fact that the world is moving on and that introducing an exam regime that will do nothing for the bottom 35-40% of all students is simply a political ideological mistake of which many have been made during my lifetime. One of the many criticisms of the current exam system is that it allows retakes where older systems didn't, why is this wrong? Shouldn't students have the chance to improve a result, doesn't that show some commitment to the cause?

The larger industries in this country are served by hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses, ninety percent of all businesses in the U.K employ fewer than 20 people. What many of these businesses are looking for are people with basic skills, computer skills in many cases but certainly English and possibly Maths at a decent level. What the education system needs to do is ensure that by the time students arrive at secondary education level they have a full understanding of the basics. Forget league tables, forget incentives, if we are going to hark back to the 'good old days' then let's see a return to good quality pre-secondary level education. These are the building blocks, the base level, the years when those skills that will be developed later in the education system should be put in place. But please let's not return to a system where facts are learned by rote simply for the sake of passing exams, let's teach some basic skills that will help prepare students for life in the 21st century not pat ourselves on the back and say 'well done, we've returned to the standards of the 1950's' but have yet another generation ill prepared for life beyond the classroom. 


A Northern Bloke said...

I am dismayed that our children have been used as political pawns for many, many years by politicians who have little experience or real life and yet insist on inflicting their philosophical beliefs on others.

I feel sorry for the pupils who go to school, do the work, deservedly pass the exams only to find out that their qualifications mean little after they've left school.

You can say what you want about teachers but politicians are ultimately to blame for the state of the education system.

Span Ows said...

very good post Paul, I agree with every word. However, unlike Shy, I do think teachers have to share some of the blame, they have to, 90% of them are lefties ;-)

Paul said...

Thanks both of you for your comments. I was interested to see in Saturday's Times that the head of Ofsted was asking why we are obsessed with GCSE results when 1 in 5 children leave Primary school unable to read or write.

The teacher who made the biggest impact on my pre-secondary education was the wife of a Conservative councillor who encouraged all her students to read for readings sake not just to acquire knowledge, the desire for knowledge then followed the pleasure derived from reading.

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