Employers continue to express disquiet about the educational standards of new recruits. Their concerns are well documented in submissions to Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications and in a recent Institute of Directors Business Opinion Survey in which 79 per cent of directors expressed disappointment with the basic skills of both school-leavers and graduates. This is a challenge for schools and industry; our economic well-being in an increasingly competitive global economy requires that we meet it successfully.
A common response by employers is to demand that the education system shifts its focus: from "traditional" subjects to "employability", from the "academic" to the "vocational", and from "knowledge" to "skills".
This sounds fine, but it needs closer analysis. Are these the most effective ways of meeting employers' concerns? Their top priority is basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Far too many school-leavers cannot spell, punctuate, pr#233;cis or even speak coherently. We cannot afford a situation in which 20 per cent of young people - 100,000 each year - reach the end of compulsory schooling without attaining the levels in English and mathematics that one expects of a typical 10- or 11-year-old.
There can be few people in education who lack a sense of urgency about all this. One can feel a new sense of the importance of a commitment to high expectations and raising standards. We have a revised national curriculum that sets clear and demanding targets for what children need to achieve. We have national tests that provide vital information for teachers and parents. We have a reform of 16-19 qualifications that emphasises rigour in both academic and vocational courses and ensures explicit provision for key skills.
What we do not need is a move to a curriculum, even in the primary years, which focuses on the basics and nothing else. There is no clear correlation, for example, between the amount of time spent teaching reading and children's ability to do so. What matters is how it is taught. One of the best ways of developing skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening is for pupils to practise them through the other subjects of the curriculum.
Employers also need to be able to take for granted a range of other skills: using information technology, tackling and solving problems creatively, working with others and in teams, being able to plan one's own learning. Schools need to have these as objectives and to check pupils' progress towards them. But, again, this does not necessarily require a restructuring of the curriculum. What it requires are methods of teaching that develop these skills. This is one of the advantages of new vocational courses such as the general national vocational qualifications that explicitly prescribe how these skills should be taught and assessed.
But there is no reason why these skills should not be taught through "academic" qualifications as well. One of the best examples of sixth- form teaching I have come across recently was a traditional A-level history course assessed entirely through terminal examination. The students were required to plan and evaluate their own learning, to do their own investigations, to work in teams and to make presentations to the rest of the group. All this was being done as a natural part of good teaching and learning.
Many basic employment skills are exactly the ones pupils need if they are to study effectively. We can get too hooked on the need for direct relevance. Good vocational courses are essential. All young people need to learn at school about the world of work, but many of the skills that employers need can be learned in diverse contexts.
When pressed about the qualities they feel are missing in recruits, it is often not skills or knowledge but attitudes and values that are at the root of employers' concerns: the need for employees who can show self-discipline, enterprise, perseverance, trust, loyalty and a sense of responsibility for others.
Most schools are well aware of this. They are some of the most moral places in society. What they sometimes lack is a clear framework within which to pursue their efforts in moral education. This is an important task for schools and one in which they need support. Clarifying what citizenship education, for instance, ought to involve, and how schools might best be supported in this area, should be high on the agenda. It is an area in which business and schools can work together.
Far from getting in the way of its core purposes, in this as in other areas, links with education are in the self-interest of business. There is a vast amount of added value to be gained from co-operation between the two worlds.
Nick Tate is chief executive of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority