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Tears won't work

Mention the term "employability skills" to a group of students and you'll see their eyes roll as they dismissively snarl about the deep ocean of interview charm they possess, while rummaging for a tatty CV. The importance of this mangled bit of kitchen roll on which their invented experience is printed has been drilled into them since the age of 12. By the time they reach us at 16, they've heard so many teachers tell them just how vital the document is that for many learners its real significance has been diluted.

This vague term, "employability skills", is cast across colleges with abandon, but do the skill set and personality traits that we in education encourage match the expectations of the employers themselves?

I think we can all agree that a good employee should turn up on time, work hard and not steal the photocopier. But what about the little adjustments towards personal circumstances often made in education that could do students a disservice in the longer term? The student who has three bus journeys and is allowed into class five minutes late? The continually distracted student whose concentration substantially increases in practical sessions when permitted to wear earphones? Are teachers so well versed in making small concessions to ensure the playing field is level that we forget that in the working world it is not?

To further explore the real needs of the employer I spoke to a regional business leader about the subject. Malcolm Hall employs numerous young people in his award-winning export company Hall-Fast. He works with a range of charities to engage disenfranchised young people and is a governor of a large FE college.

While Mr Hall is dedicated in his work to raise aspirations for young people, he says that they must also actively participate: "Young people face multiple challenges, but some need to learn that they are responsible for their own future and stop blaming external forces."

Employment is not like The X Factor: a heart-wrenching backstory does not offer increased chances of success. I have always been keen on promoting a standard of behaviour and discipline in my classrooms that is on a par with that of the world of work. It is my responsibility to demand a certain level of professionalism; accepting anything less puts the learners at risk of believing that lower standards will be tolerated when they enter work. They won't. This strategy doesn't necessarily win popularity contests with students, but it is training them for employment.

However, encouraging good behaviour is a very different task from instilling a solid work ethic and positive attitude. The reality is that by the time learners reach us in FE, however hard we try, for some it may be too late. "People mature at different ages," Mr Hall says. "But we need to start raising aspirations and inspiring a work ethic when children are in primary school, not when it's time to leave education."

Teaching strategies that reward effort as well as achievement are vital. Unless we promote the reality that to an employer a positive attitude to work can be as important as the level of vocational expertise, we risk sending our students into the world with insufficient skills for a sustainable working life.

Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.

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