It’s time to teach business leaders a lesson in constructive criticism

By Gerard Kelly

“Billions of pounds have been sunk into education in Britain,” fumed one eminent business academic, “and yet the only return has been to produce the most functionally inadequate class of any major industrialized country.”

Teachers have become used to the annual denunciation of education by business around results time. Leaders of industry queue up to complain that school-leavers can’t add, spell or walk upright. A fifth of them, according to an article last week, are “functionally illiterate”. And the nation nods in agreement, certain that people who have made such a success of UK plc must know what they’re talking about.

TES, which has been around even longer than most supermarket veg, has published regular outbreaks of employer frustration over the past century. The quote above was from 1975, and presumably applies to the generation of business leaders now pontificating from their boardrooms and golf courses about today’s work-unready youths. It’s evidence that employer dissatisfaction, like death, taxes and whingeing farmers, is a reassuring constant; it isn’t proof that education or school-leavers are getting worse.

On the contrary, schools can point to higher levels of basic literacy and numeracy than a decade ago, far greater numbers of pupils with good A levels and GCSEs, increasing numbers taking the maths and science qualifications business says it wants and improved pupil behaviour. Anecdotally, few people over the age of forty argue that today’s youth do not work as hard as they did at a similar age, rather the opposite.

Even claims of widespread illiteracy are overblown. According to the OECD, just over 18 per cent of UK students leave school with skill levels that render them unproductive. That is too high, but it is not the same as being “functionally illiterate”. It’s also below the OECD average and lower than in the US, France or Germany.

Why the unrelenting criticism? Could it be that industry finds it far easier to bash schools than stump up the readies? British businesses spend less than their overseas counterparts on training, far less on R”D and, with a few exceptions, are not exactly world leaders when it comes to apprenticeships.

The trouble with continual carping is that people become deaf to it even when it’s justified – and some of it is. The proportion of school-leavers who are virtually unemployable has remained stubbornly high at around one in ten for years, literacy and numeracy levels have flatlined, the proportion of mono-lingual youngsters is way too high and even exam boards whisper that maths standards in particular are not as good as they could be.

Fortunately, there are signs that business is becoming more constructive. Two-fifths of employers in a recent survey said that they now engage with schools regularly, a similar percentage provide high quality work placements and several of them are putting their money where their mouths are and sponsoring university technical colleges.

Arguing about school-leavers’ skills over time is a pretty barren exercise. The sobering fact is that expectations have risen inexorably as business has become more complex, global and competitive. Meeting those expectations will be a challenge. But they will be a lot harder to meet if education is routinely branded a “failure” and youngsters dismissed as not “fit for work”.