Teachers could be forgiven for thinking that businesses are a pretty unappreciative lot. Employers routinely say that school doesn’t prepare children for the world of work. Some 60 per cent told the CBI in a recent survey that school-leavers lacked the skills to succeed in the workplace. The British Chambers of Commerce recorded even higher levels of dissatisfaction: nine out of 10 companies complained that young people were not ready for work when they left school.
When such a large proportion of employers say young people lack key skills, we clearly have a serious problem. And few would disagree that one of the biggest issues facing the UK at the moment is our skills deficit. Without a remedy, the country will suffer. If the problem is obvious, so too are the culprits, at least as far as the headlines are concerned. “Employers slam inadequate schools”, “School-leavers unable to function in the workplace” and “Schools churn out exam robots” are some recent examples.
Faced with such discontent, teachers are naturally defensive. One assistant headteacher told Sky: “When employers complain that schools don’t equip youngsters with skills they need at work, my immediate reaction is, ‘Oh yes, and what are you doing about it?’ ”
It’s a fair question. It is clearly unreasonable to try to make teachers solely responsible for the skills deficit. Sadly, this is typical of a debate that is too often portrayed in terms of an indignant prosecution and a culpable defence. This is not only unjust, it’s foolish. If we persist in seeing the skills deficit principally as an issue for schools, we will never solve it.
A long-term solution to the skills crisis must acknowledge three things: the opportunities for students to become work-literate have diminished; companies have to engage with schools and do their share of heavy lifting; and when employers do get involved, they have to be clear about what they want.
To take the first issue, a generation ago part-time work for students was commonplace. It isn’t easy to find now. The paper round is far less common, the economy has changed and many parents prefer that their children learn rather than earn. Last month, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills reported that since 1996 the proportion of 16- to 18-year-old students in part-time work had declined from 42 per cent to 18 per cent. There are fewer opportunities for students to secure paid work and, as this trend is unlikely to be reversed, it is vitally important for schools and employers to work together to provide alternatives.
So how prepared are employers to engage with schools? In December last year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) published a survey on the links between employers and schools. Although it found that half of employers offered apprenticeships, workplace visits, internships or other types of engagement to schools, half did not. When asked why, most said that they lacked time and resources, or that health and safety considerations made it difficult to build relationships. Incidentally, of the 98 schools and colleges asked, only four said they weren’t interested in talking to employers.
Small companies undoubtedly find it harder to commit resources than larger ones. And some workplaces are clearly unsuitable for school visits. But I wonder how many of those employers who routinely express dissatisfaction with the work-readiness of school-leavers have reached out to their local schools? If the Bis survey is an accurate reflection of employer engagement, an awful lot of students are being denied the opportunity to experience the world of work. Employers have to interact with schools if they want young people to be better prepared.
Finally, businesses have to bear in mind that if they want schools to nurture the skills they need, then they have to be clear about what those skills are. Employers often talk of “character” or “soft skills” without defining what they mean. At Sky we prize confidence, communication, creativity, teamwork, resilience and the ability to work with a range of people. We created Sky Academy to help students understand how important those skills are and how we use them.
Sky Academy is a set of initiatives in which thousands of young people every week are given the chance to learn that teamwork means something if you are struggling to put together a programme or meet a project deadline, and that communication is invaluable if, for example, you work in customer services. Our ambition is to help up to 1 million young people – from primary school pupils to those starting out in their careers – to learn practical skills and gain experience that will help them in life and in work. And we’ve made a very strong start, with more than 230,000 students taking part so far.
I appreciate that not all employers have the resources available to us. But it doesn’t take a lot to forge a relationship with a local school by talking to teachers and students, nor to extend that to community partners. We work with two that also help young people to build their skills: Step Up To Serve and National Citizen Service. There are a number of employers who understand that the skills deficit isn’t a school problem but a problem shared by all of us. Schools should be seen as partners, not scapegoats. Ultimately, it’s a problem that will only be resolved when employers step up and help schools to fix it.
Deborah Baker is a group director at Sky