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'Business versus education – avoiding a false dichotomy'

Businesses and schools may have different vocabularies, but they tend to agree on the goals of education, writes CBI's Neil Carberry

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Businesses and schools may have different vocabularies, but they tend to agree on the goals of education, writes CBI's Neil Carberry

Sadly, JL Dutaut’s recent commentary on CBI president Paul Drechsler’s Association of School and College Leaders' conference speech retreats to views about the business community that do not reflect the position of most employers, and the CBI.

First and foremost, the claim that businesses engage with education because they view it solely as a production line of future talent is simply not true. In the 14 years I have worked with businesses, I have learned that what motivates members at the CBI is their role in a shared challenge – helping young people to navigate a complex world and find their place in it. Democratic citizenship, as Dutaut puts it.

Work plays a big part in all our lives, of course, but the preparation that businesses see as important in schools is not about specific technical skills for jobs, but about wider preparation for adult life. A curriculum that caters to the whole child helps in every walk of life, and the workplace is just one of those areas.

In his ASCL speech, Paul explicitly rejected the idea of education as a training scheme for businesses. Recent data shows that companies are spending over £40 billion a year on training – so to suggest that they don’t is a cheap jibe. And the workplace, alongside colleges and specialist provision like university technical colleges, is where technical skills are best learned. So perhaps we agree after all. Our goal in proposing an Education Commission to drive a more research- and evidence-led approach to curriculum seems rather less different from his own proposals, viewed in this light.

Teachers 'written out'?

But I was more troubled by a second misapprehension about our view – that in some way teachers were “written out” of the speech’s vision for the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the publication of First Steps, the CBI’s education agenda in 2012, our core message to government has been that supporting great teaching and school leadership is more important than anything else in our schools’ debate. More important than school structures and exam reforms, certainly.

This view is there in the speech, too – it is one of the top issues raised. And if teachers don’t qualify as educational leaders – on Paul’s list for involvement in a commission designed to take the politics out of educational improvement – who does?

Let me end, therefore, with an outstretched hand. Because I think there is less disagreement than Dutaut’s piece suggests. The criticisms of business and of the CBI are not ones we recognise. But Dutaut’s core point about education reform is one where we agree more than we disagree – perhaps because some of the challenges thrown at the business community are not as valid as you may think.

I mentioned earlier that I have been working with the CBI for 14 years, and been involved in our education work for much of that time. Here’s the main thing I have learned: for the most part, while firms and schools have different vocabularies, they tend to agree on the goals of education when they talk to each other. Helping this discussion to happen more widely will help to build the stability and support schools need – it may even help us all be more persuasive with politicians.          

Neil Carberry is the CBI’s managing director for people and infrastructure policy

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