End this vocational skills snobbery

8th February 2008 at 00:00

Education should be a revolving door, enabling people to move freely between training and academic study, says David Fairhurst.

The debate which has been triggered by the announcement that burger chain McDonald's will be awarding nationally recognised qualifications accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) raises an important question: what is education for?

Critics of the scheme believe education should be about opening the minds of young people, encouraging them to be thoughtful and intellectually inquisitive.

They also believe it is about exposing them to literature, art, history and science. The idea of a vocational qualification equivalent to an A- level being awarded by a private-sector organisation - and by a multinational quick-service restaurant chain at that - clearly fills them with horror.

Meanwhile, many employers criticise the education system for, on the one hand, failing to equip one in five young people with basic numeracy and literacy skills and, on the other, for teaching "meaningless" subjects which have little or no relevance in the workplace. Education - in their opinion - is about giving youngsters the skills they need for the world of work.

My concern about this debate is that it tends to overlook the needs of young people. McDonald's employs 67,000 people in the UK. Of these, 60 per cent are under 21 years of age. Some have left school with no qualifications. Others are still studying at school or college, and around 10,000 are studying at university for degrees or higher qualifications.

In other words, we employ a good cross-section of the education system's output, which puts us in a position to assess the impact it is having. Some of the results are outstanding: bright, articulate youngsters with enquiring minds that see opportunities for change and who inform their arguments by drawing on knowledge from a wide variety of sources. They have thrived in an academic environment and are now bringing what they have learned into the workplace, which is enriched by them.

Others have clearly disengaged from formal education at an early stage and, although their minds are also enquiring, it is obvious they couldn't see how the academic subjects they were being taught were relevant to their daily lives. But put them in an environment where the skills they are being taught have a link to their day-to-day activities and, suddenly, their enthusiasm for learning is transformed.

In a business where managers are constantly talking about margins, percentages and yields, the mathematics which once seemed so esoteric now has an application. And in an environment where progression requires an individual to assimilate a substantial amount of information, the importance of reading, writing and ITC skills suddenly becomes clear.

These are breakthrough moments - when their passion for learning is reignited. Some sign up for e-learning courses in maths and English delivered via our employee website. Others embark on our internal development programmes. And many decide to enrol for courses at their local college.

Thus, the flaw in the argument that education is exclusively about academic excellence is that this alienates a sizeable number of youngsters during their formative years and fails to unlock their true potential. And the problem with those that argue education is exclusively about workplace skills, is that this would stifle the free thinking and creativity every business needs in order to thrive. Education must be about both - and this has two clear implications.

First, we should dispense with the notion of people leaving education and entering the world of work. We should remove all the exits from our schools, colleges, and universities and replace them with revolving doors that allow people to move freely between workplace training and academic learning.

Second, we should acknowledge that vocational excellence is every bit as challenging to achieve as academic excellence.

James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary, summed it up perfectly last week when he said that, "for a long time, we've had a slight snobbery about vocational qualifications, and we need to get over that. If they're equivalent skills - and the independent organisation who is in charge of saying they are confirms that - then we should recognise the skills people are getting."

So let's give credit where it's due. Credit for the fact that the training McDonald's gives its people is of sufficient breadth, depth and quality to merit a nationally recognised qualification. And, more importantly, that our young people should get the recognition and opportunities they deserve for the hard work they put into completing these programmes. It would be a tragedy if "slight snobbery" were allowed to stifle their talent.

David Fairhurst is senior vice-president and chief people officer for McDonald's.

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