Basic foundations for growth

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was in my doctor's waiting room, facing what seemed like an interminable delay. Although frustrating, this gave me the chance to read a range of magazines which I would not normally take time to study.

Among these was a journal devoted to rural life and country pursuits. After I had studied all the opening advertisements for houses and estates, the vast majority of which cost well in excess of seven figures, I found the editorial which to my surprise, was devoted to education.

The journal had been published in March (of this year, it was quite new by waiting room standards), and was commenting on the report of the Basic Skills Unit which highlighted that a quarter of our school-leavers were failing to achieve the expected standards of basic skills.

The editor had five fundamental points to make.

* A unit set up to address basic skills needs has a self-interest in declaring that the needs exist.

* Basic Skills cannot be essential or 25 per cent of the population would be unable to survive.

* Would we really prefer to be like the higher skilled French? We should emulate the USA, which has achieved superpower status despite low skill levels.

* The national interest would be better served by promoting genius, not improved basic skills.

* Darwinian theory tells us that if basic skills were essential they would have been developed naturally.

Now I am no academic, but even so I was able to detect a few flaws in the arguments. However, after I had recovered my composure I reflected that this told me lot more about the attitudes of the editor, and possibly his readership, than it did about the problem of the under-achieving tail of our educational system. If the editor's view of society was ever right, it certainly belongs to an era that has long gone, and ignores the enormous pace of change.

My company, Marconi Communications, is going through its second major restructuring and reorganisation this year, driven by technology and competition. At all levels of the organisation people are having to learn new technologies and adapt to new values and imperatives.

As part of the transition we are looking to map the skills of most of our 14,000 employees, spread across Europe, the Far East and Africa, to assess shortages and surpluses and determine recruitment and training needs and transfer opportunities, as well as rationalisation needs.

One interesting trend that is emerging, and one which I suspect would not have applied even 10 years ago, is that the managers I have spoken to are more interested in generic skills such as the ability to work in teams, to express views both in writing and in the person to be flexible, willing to take decisions (and occasionally risks) and to learn from mistakes. These are all more important than a specific job-related skill which can be learned and which we know will be outdated within the next five years. This change clearly creates opportunities for further education, a fact which colleges themselves, as well as the Skills Taskforce and projects such as University for Industry, very well recognise.

Readers of this journal will no doubt be reassured to learn that the correspondence columns of my doctor's copy of the following week's magazine were full of concern at the implications of the editorial for the rural economy. The importance of basic and key skills now, it seems, unites us all.

Jim Scrimshaw is chairman of the Association of Colleges

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