Education - fit for purpose? - Business Works
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Education - fit for purpose?

Chris Dines, CEO of Knowledge Peers T he Coalition Government still continues to be pushing forward with an often startling mix of policy announcements and cost cutting. Chris Dines, CEO of Knowledge Peers, looks at education and if it is preparing young people for work.

Itís not always clear what the intended outcomes of such announcements and cuts are or, more importantly, are likely to be. One such area relates to the work readiness of our school leavers. There is a universal desire to see UK plc achieve vibrant growth, and the lack of skilled, work-savvy youngsters is typically mentioned as a constraint. Letís take a look at what at the Coalition is planning here.

"Vocational education is a vital underpinning for our economy. The development of young peopleís skills in areas of immediate relevance to employers and business is a central part of the Governmentís plans to boost economic growth, and to support higher levels of youth employment. It is commonplace that technical education in England has long been weaker than most other developed nations. Yet it is also widely agreed that our countryís future relies upon building an advanced economy founded on high-level technical skills, and the ability to remain at the forefront of ever-faster technological change."
Source: Government Response to the Wolf Review of Vocational education

Business and Education: working in partnership?

Government policy At Knowledge Peers we have access to the thoughts and views of thousands of people who run SMEs. There is palpable awareness that all of us 'in business' need to raise our game if we are going to survive, prosper and play our part in turning round and growing the UK economy. An 'accepted' barrier to growth is that there is a lack of rounded, aspirational, skilled youngsters available for employment. I say 'accepted', as personal experience suggests this might be more about perceptions or, perhaps, excuses.

We have recently commenced research on how businesses like to interface with education (secondary schools in particular) and vice versa. This has meant that, in addition to listening to lots of business leaders, we have also spent time listening to the views of Head Teachers and, though a bigger challenge (and see more below), those involved with the business-education axis within Government. Our research has initially focused on the implications of the Governmentís near-total withdrawal of grant funding some 400 local delivery agencies (Education Business Partnerships, 'EBPs') that support work experience and work related learning.

Our research allows us to shed some light on that Government Response to the Wolf Review, in terms of the Coalitionís actual response. Let me pick through some of the words used by the DfE:

"Technical education in England has long been weaker than most other developed nations."

While I struggled to find much in the way of research that backed this statement up, a quick Google suggests that once every few years, whoever is in Government spends money on a 'Review' of the issue. The (Independent) Wolf Review was preceded by the (Independent) Tomlinson Report, to quote in 2004:

"These issues (lack of vocational training / skills) are being addressed by the government, including measures reported in the 'Tomlinson Review' on the reform of 14-19 education, which places a heavy emphasis on the need for vocational learning which is relevant to employer skill needs."

Our research, based on feedback from companies that take work experience placements, does suggest that many school children have very limited understanding of what is required to meet an employerís expectations when they come through the door, let alone have a grasp of sector specific skills.

So we know there is a big challenge ...

"The development of young peopleís skills in areas of immediate relevance to employers and business is a central part of the Governmentís plans."

The term 'central' hints at major Government involvement; or does it? In fact, the situation appears to be quite the reverse.

Putting aside issues of effectiveness, the Old / New Labour government had a very 'central' programme for 14-19 year olds linked to vocational training, including the briefly heralded diplomas. To quote:

A Diploma contains three key areas of learning:
  • Principal Learning Ė the essential curriculum relating to the main theme of the Diploma;
  • Generic Learning Ė the essential skills in preparation for successful employment, training and further study (including Maths, English and ICT);
  • Additional and Specialist Learning Ė a choice from a range of learning options selected by employers as being beneficial to work.

Diplomas, on the face of it, seemed like a great response and might have placed young peopleís work-related skills at the centre of Government plans. When taking a look at the specifics of the Diploma (again they look good to me, assuming they are delivered properly!), you find that an amazing 5000 businesses were involved in their development and that every diploma involves a minimum of 10 days sector-relevant work experience. However, their launch was done in such a cack-handed way that they are quietly being put at the bottom of the sock drawer ... I found another DfE page which says the following:

Schools and colleges who wish to offer the Diploma should be able to do so, but they should not be obliged to offer it.

... the Government announced that £14 million of savings were to be made from the previously centrally-funded 14-19 Workforce Support Programme. This resulted in the closure of the 14-19 Workforce Support Programme at the end of August 2010.

So schools donít have to offer them and central funding is being dropped for coordinating the involvement of employers. I really canít see Diplomas working with such inadequate political and financial support.

But, dropping the Diploma focus is just the start. Far from being 'central to its plans' the CENTRAL Government is pretty much removing itself from all involvement in vocational training for school students. Until this year, for example, the Government spent £25m on work-related learning activities each year, a large element of which allowed EBPís to match hundreds of thousands of students to businesses willing to take them on for two weeks. Very little noise is made about such cuts or how they relate to policy.

And itís not just cash. The DfE has got rid of the idea of each vocational qualification being worth 4 GCSEs. Schools have no incentive for work-related learning (or diplomas) unless they think that itís going to help their kids and their reputation in some way. To reinforce that policy, Central Government is looking to drop the statutory requirement for 14 to 16 year olds to gain work experience.

The final confirmation of this decentralisation is when you find out that the entire division at the DfE that was responsible for employer relations has in fact gone altogether!

So, what IS the reality of Government Policy?

Government policy So, what part of Government policy reflects that vocation training is central? Aside from investing more in Apprenticeship programmes (good, though itís outside of schools, and there are only so many business that can do apprenticeships well during a tight economy), Iíd say that the whole policy is decentralisation, combined with funding cuts, done at an incredibly rapid pace. In essence, Government does not intend to intervene when it comes to vocational training within schools and is effectively removing both the carrots and the sticks. Schools can decide what to do and if they donít want to provide work related training and / or work experience then thatís their choice.

The above scenario might mean the death knell for many of the hundreds of EBPs around the country. Aside from delivering work-related training, their primary activity has been to organise the safe, relevant placing of schools students at local businesses. This is no small task, given that the vast majority of placements involve no more than two students at a small business. It is something of a myth that large corporate are the main source of assistance with work experience and our research suggests itís quite the reverse. In one part of London, it requires 1500 businesses to take on 2500 students for two weeks. EBPs have been largely grant funded but, in future, either schools or new sources will need to fund this activity. EBPs, in our view, will need to enhance their 'offer' significantly if schools are going to carve out some budget. This will happen in some areas, but needs to happen rapidly if many years of experience and local networking are not to dissipate.

So, what will happen?

Not that itís explicitly stated anywhere (or am I missing something?), but in essence the Government is expecting the 'market' to respond and make vocational training a central plank of our economic future ... or perhaps this is Big Society writ large?

Our research is still ongoing, but it says that business believes that the right training is vital (not to mention the right attitudes). In fact, our research has already found that, if properly organised, 85% of businesses would consider providing work experience for school children. Our research with schools, suggests that vocational training is not always seen as key to the aims of the school and, indeed, commands very small budgets indeed.

Schools do command large budgets (think £5m plus at secondary level), but funding is complex and becoming more so. My sense is that you will need enlightened leadership at schools and parental pressure to put vocational training high on the list. Business will play its part willingly.

Our own research is currently identifying what is happening with this, what is likely to happen and what could happen given a completely fresh take on how to develop kids for a worthwhile career of work.

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