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'Commercial learning will prepare next generation for work'

Fintan Donohue, chief executive of the Gazelle College Group, writes:

Exam results season is the perfect opportunity to reflect on how our education system is preparing the next generation for the world of work. We have some way to go in this regard, as was highlighted by a recent survey for the Prince’s Trust which found that three quarters of British businesses have concerns over the suitability of our school and college leavers for the workplace.

As Lord Young outlined in his recent report for the government, Enterprise For All, "the world of those now leaving education will be one in which self-reliance and creativity will be rewarded and the education system will have to adapt".

Earlier this month John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI, spoke of the disconnect between the workplace and our children’s perceptions of it. The head of the UK’s leading business organisation describing this generation as the most streetwise yet but also "the least ready for the world of work" should set alarm bells ringing.

Too much emphasis on exam results which focus only on knowledge and skills has resulted in a situation where the broader set of skills that businesses seek when recruiting young people remain undervalued. We need to do more to bridge this gap and better prepare our students for the world of work.

Earlier this month, a survey of 616 business leaders for the Prince’s Trust found that almost three quarters of British businesses had concerns over the skills shortage. And a survey carried out by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills earlier this year found that 146,200 job vacancies (22 per cent) were vacant as a result of inadequate skills.

This mismatch between young people’s skills and the needs of employers is putting our rapidly growing economy at risk and is further reinforced by research published this year by McKinsey which found that only 25 per cent of employers thought that young people were being equipped with the skills they required for work.

The skills shortage threatens to hinder the growth of our nation’s businesses, and that will continue to be the case unless education and training is placed in a commercial context for our students. It is no longer a case of skills for skills sake, there must be a focus on the experience of working within a business, and how those skills can work for you in the real world.

As companies continue to hire and our technology and advanced manufacturing sectors continue to show signs of strong growth, the discrepancy between the needs of our businesses and the skills of young people educated in an outdated system, unsuitable for the jobs of the 2020s, could become a real problem for our economy.

In the Gazelle Colleges Group we are experimenting with new learning models that prioritise commercial learning and give students the full experience of working within an enterprise, from profit and loss to dealing with suppliers and clients. Ultimately we believe there is the potential for college-owned enterprises, often in partnership with local businesses, to give the students the invaluable opportunity to learn hands-on within a safe and regulated business environment.

Schemes such as the Enterprise Passport, one of the flagship recommendations of Lord Young’s Enterprise for All report, show the way forward and the Enterprise Passport is indicative of the steps required to bring our education system up to speed with the needs of the modern world. Schemes such as this will accelerate the recognition of enterprise within the education system and enable work experience, vocational courses and other enterprising activities to assume a position reflecting their true importance within our schools and colleges.

Furthermore, the Enterprise Passport represents a ready-made tool which employers can utilise to take a more rounded view of individuals and differentiate between candidates when it comes to recruitment. It would also incentivise and encourage students to pursue activities in addition to their academic qualifications, standing them in good stead for when they enter the commercial world.

Ultimately, employers are the end-market for any educator, and we must take the signals and messages coming from our nation’s businesses as the basis for educational reform. We can only prosper from an education sector that is more in tune with the needs of the commercial world and the modern economy. And, giving students of all ages the opportunity to experience a commercial environment is integral for shaping future generations to have the best chance of success in a dynamic jobs market.

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