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Businesses: ‘Whoever wins the election must push schools to focus on soft skills’

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Today’s pupils are tomorrow’s workforce, which is why education is such an important issue for business. Yet, so far, there has been little focus on education in the general election debate. This is in stark contrast to previous campaigns where education was centre stage – the 1997 Labour slogan "education, education, education" seems a distant past.

Businesses across the country want an education system that focuses on the core subjects like maths and English which are crucial to success in the modern workplace. But firms also want pupils to be equipped with the soft skills and attitude to successfully make the transition to work.

The party manifestos have made some limited attempts to address this. The Conservative Party’s focus is still very much on the core subjects, but their New Careers and Enterprise Company sets a new agenda focused on helping schools and businesses work together to provide careers advice to pupils. This would be supported by a guaranteed place for all pupils on the National Citizenship Service, to help them develop life skills.

Their commitment to publish more earnings and destination data for further education courses is welcome – but this should also apply to secondary schools and form part of the inspection framework for schools and college. This would help give schools and colleges the incentives to think hard about the progression of their pupils when they finish their studies.

Labour has promised to reintroduce pre-16 work experience and guaranteed one-to-one careers advice for all pupils. Both these policies will be welcomed by business. The danger, however, is that we slip back into a complacent work experience regime which is neither inspiring for pupils nor beneficial for business. We need a much broader definition of work experience, which encompasses everything from mentoring, group business visits, and guest speakers at schools to enterprise games. Businesses should be involved, and there needs to be time and resource in the curriculum to deliver this.

The Liberal Democrats have made a big play by putting their education policies top of the priority list for any coalition negotiations. If they end up holding the balance of power after May 7, they may well push for the top role at the Department for Education. They say they will improve links between employers and schools, but we’re left wondering how exactly this will work. We call on all parties to explore how Chambers of Commerce across the country can help schools – many of which are members of their local chamber – better connect with their local business community.

One thing that ties all the parties is their commitment to ring-fence the education budget to some extent. With expected growth in pupil numbers and costs, schools are set to experience a real terms squeeze in funding. It’s therefore even more important that schools receive clear signals from government, and their governing bodies, that it’s important to dedicate resources to developing soft skills and engaging with business. Ultimately it will benefit their pupils in the long run. And that has to be what matters most.

Marcus Mason is employment and skills manager at the British Chamber of Commerce.

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