One of the constants in my 40 years of working has been the disconnect between the needs of the employer and the students that the education system produces. It is really quite depressing because the supply of the right people with the right skills and the right work ethic is critical to our future success, as is the continuous upskilling of the existing workforce.
This is not about fault on either side. The education system needs, in my opinion, to think of the employer as a customer, and in business we very quickly learn to give the customer what they want or we don’t have a business for very long. The student is also an important customer, but to an employer the student is the product and the product needs to be fit for purpose.
The problem is that the needs of these two important customers come second to the needs of the system and regulators which force schools and colleges to act in certain ways and we need to sympathise with them, not criticise them.
The need to be ‘Ofsted good’ drives schools and colleges to focus on passing exams to the detriment of everything else. This process-driven, box-ticking system is in complete conflict with the needs of a system trying, for instance, to re-engage students who have attained very little and are often from deprived areas where they get little support. In large city colleges more than 50 per cent of the students coming into it can be from this type of background. They need a different approach but regulation stifles original thought or entrepreneurialism.
The vagaries of the funding system drive the education system to build a mix of subjects around financial viability and not the needs of the local economic strategy. A college gets more or less the same amount of money for a student doing hairdressing or one doing engineering – but the costs of an engineering course are so much more than a hairdressing one. Local economic strategies require more engineers than hairdressers but if the college reflected that it would fail financially.
I am the first to argue that businesses need to get involved in careers advice at all ages, to work with the educators as students get older and help students understand what work means and how to apply skills, and even to continue to invest in their employees in a spirit of life-long learning. But businesses pay an enormous amount of money in taxes like business rates and VAT. Is it too much to ask that the education system produces students at a younger age that are well-rounded and have a broad understanding of the world of work, i.e. fertile ground on which the later educators and the businesses themselves can work on.
There needs to be a fundamental change to the strategic objectives of the education system and the regulators and it starts with the recognition that it is there to service the customers. The education system is there to satisfy the employers and the students, not the regulators and the system.