The skills children need for life are obvious — we just need to teach them

Tremendous article in The Times by Rachel Sylvester on the Education Commission Summit

Young people would leave education far better prepared if there were more focus on areas such as communication, creativity, problem solving and resilience

Rachel Sylvester

I have news for you Rachel, it has been like this for years, generations even. There is actually a strong case that the educational system has never prepared young people for employment, it has just identified those with potential that companies can then develop through on the job training and experience.

Still it is good (as ever) the issue is being highlighted but how about some thoughts on how to improve it?

Times Article

Your education today is your economy tomorrow,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and The Times Education Commission’s international adviser. Schools, colleges and universities are the foundation on which the country’s future prosperity is built. The purpose of education should never be purely economic but a well-functioning system should provide businesses with the skills that they need now and in the future while also preparing children for the world of work.

There is growing evidence that education in the UK is failing on both of these fronts. A business survey for the commission by the professional services firm PwC, published at today’s Education Summit, found widespread dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of a system that is not training up the workforce the country requires to thrive.

Thirty-five per cent of the companies said that they had shortages in basic skills including literacy and numeracy, and 39 per cent were struggling to recruit people with the right digital and technological proficiencies. More than 40 per cent expected to have shortages in the skills needed to support the transition to net zero within the next 12 months.

There is also a loss of faith in exams. According to the survey, 17 per cent of companies take no notice of GCSEs, A-levels or degree grades when hiring new staff and 75 per cent use their own assessment techniques in recruitment because they believe they are more reliable.

There is a clear economic cost. Half of businesses said that re-imagining schools, colleges and universities to better meet their needs would allow them to contribute to a more resilient UK economy.

The Open University’s latest annual Business Barometer also found that 63 per cent of business leaders were struggling with recruitment because candidates did not have the capabilities or experience for the role. An estimated nine million working-age adults in England have low basic skills in literacy or numeracy, including five million who have low skills in both. Twenty-two per cent of adults lack the skills required to participate in the digital world.

Sir Charlie Mayfield, the former chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills who is now chairman of the training and apprenticeship firm QA, warned of a damaging disconnect between education and employment. “We’ve ended up in a situation where the world of education and the world of work are almost more separate than they’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s crazy and very unfortunate for a lot of people.”

He calculated that the failure to address the skills gap could cost the UK £140 billion in lost GDP by 2028. “Standards in education have always been measured by exams, assessments and grades, so it’s not surprising that this has been the focus,” he said. “However, this is increasingly at the expense of what employers really value . . . resilience, communication and problem solving. How much time do young people spend developing those skills while studying for the mark scheme?”

According to a YouGov poll for our commission, about 60 per cent of parents believe that the education system does not adequately prepare young people for either work or life.

The world is changing at an astonishing rate but the education system has failed to keep up. The ways people shop, work, travel, listen to music and watch television have been transformed in the past decade. There have also been enormous developments in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Yet schools have changed little in more than a century.

Dame Sharon White, who succeeded Mayfield at the John Lewis Partnership, insisted that the education system must move from “rote learning and memorisation” to “skills like project management, assessing children on teamwork and the ability to make a product”. That might, she said, be better done through more continuous assessment than exams. “It’s very rare that there are any work tasks where you have two and a quarter hours to get from A to B. The way in which assessments are done [should be] mirroring the world of work.” Too many young people were being “completely failed” by the education system, she added, pointing out that her company frequently had to provide basic literacy and numeracy classes to new members of staff.

There are many brilliant teachers doing remarkable work but too often they are achieving their success despite, not because of, a system that has become over-centralised and determined to micro-manage schools. Lord O’Neill of Gatley, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management who helped to set up the Northern Powerhouse Partnership as a Treasury minister, said that Whitehall control-freakery was undermining the prime minister’s ambition to reduce regional inequality. “The Department for Education has a far too centralised national approach to everything,” he said. “Levelling up can mean endless things but ultimately creating opportunity for all is what it has to be about, and the education system is hindering that because it’s too rigid. It’s tragic.”

Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and a Times education commissioner, said that it was depressing how little had changed since he left the department, where he was chief economist until 2004. “Our system sets an awful lot of children up to fail,” he said. “We know that the quarter or so of children who leave primary school not reaching the expected level will not reach the expected level at GCSE and we have no alternative for them. We continue to have a system which works quite well for those children who want to go on to university through the A-level route, but which remains inadequate and hopelessly complex for those who want to go on through vocational and skills education.”

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, argued in his Mais lecture in February: “Providing our people with a world-class education is one of government’s greatest responsibilities . . . education is the most powerful weapon we have in our fight to level up.” He is right but education has fallen down the list of Whitehall priorities. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, health spending will have increased by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2025 but education will have risen by less than 3 per cent.

The Times education commissioner Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra beer and president of the Confederation of British Industry, said failing to invest in education was “the biggest false economy” but that just pouring more money in was not enough. “There’s got to be a shift of mindset,” he said. “We need to unleash the creative potential that lies within almost every child in this country. If it is that ability to be creative and innovative that makes us more competitive as a country then we’ve got to turbocharge that. We’re not even scratching the surface of tapping into it.”

The entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson argued that putting less emphasis on exams and more on employment skills and creativity would be “better for the economy” and “better for the individual”. He told the commission: “For countries that have already done it, it is already giving them an economic boost.”

The World Economic Forum put critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, resilience and initiative in its list of “top ten skills of 2025”. In the highest-performing countries, including Estonia, Singapore and Finland, schools actively seek to prepare their pupils for the future by promoting these skills as well as imparting knowledge.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has added “creativity” to the list of qualities that will be assessed — alongside reading, maths and science — in the next Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests of 15-year-olds later this year. The UK is one of only a handful of countries that has refused to take part, preferring a more traditional approach. Without a change of direction in education, however, “global Britain” will soon be left behind.