Industry standard

24th August 2012 at 01:00
As exam results are released, carping is invariably heard from the headquarters of big business. Why do they do it?, asks William Stewart

It has become as much of a ritual as the exams themselves. You might expect the publication of GCSE and A-level results to be a time for congratulating schools. Yet every August, as hard-working pupils and teachers reflect on well-deserved success, another powerful voice is delivering a very different message.

When Britain's business lobby has something to get off its chest it does not allow the hurt feelings of teenagers and their teachers to stand in its way. They may think they have done well but, invariably, as far as business is concerned they could and should have done much, much better. Except, of course, for the fact that if they had done better it would have been further incontrovertible proof of falling standards.

You see, teachers may think they are experts in education, but they're not - not really. It's employers who know what they're talking about because it's employers who have to pick up the pieces when school-leavers turn up unable to do the job.

Last year's assault was actually relatively mild. The CBI did at least take the trouble to offer its congratulations before quickly moving on to where schools had gone wrong.

"Too many students are still failing to pass maths GCSE," complained policy director Katja Hall. Meanwhile, her deputy director-general, Neil Bentley, warned that the numbers studying A-level maths and science were "far too low and must increase further to meet employer demand".

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, says the profession has had enough of the criticism. She has members who won't switch on the radio any more because of the public "denigration" they receive.

A decade ago, they might have been safe to turn the volume back up outside mid-August. But these days, business no longer confines its education gripes to the silly season.

Plans leaked in June for new "O levels" provided employers with an early warm-up for this summer's carping. "Standards in British exams have slipped," commented Mike Harris, head of education policy at the Institute of Directors (IoD). At the British Chambers of Commerce, director of policy Adam Marshall warned that: "Businesses have steadily lost confidence in the ability of the education system to deliver young people who are ready for the world of work."

`Unfit' for industry?

That may be true, but nobody could accuse them of being shy of talking about it. Firms were spending millions on remedial training to "compensate for earlier failings in the education system", the CBI had said just days earlier. Employers were turning to foreign workers because our education system was not "fit for purpose", said the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in November, continuing a well-worn theme. British education was a "failure", David Frost, the outgoing director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, claimed in April 2011. Sir Stuart Rose said that many school-leavers were not "fit for work" when he was chief executive of Marks and Spencer, and his former counterpart at Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, has attacked school standards as "woefully low".

The high profiles of such titans of business guarantee that the media will always make great play of their uncompromising views on education. And perhaps that is right. After all, these are people who have succeeded in leading huge organisations, employing thousands of people. So maybe they do have some useful advice to offer teachers?

But there is a problem. If the schools system decided to act on everything industry was saying, it would find it extremely difficult to form a clear, coherent strategy. British business appears to want all things from education at all times. Some industry leaders argue that tackling slipping academic standards in exams should be the priority, but others believe it is the growing gap between academic and vocational education. Some are alarmed by a lack of basic literacy and numeracy, whereas others would prefer to concentrate on the "soft" skills such as communications and teamwork.

A common solution on which all business leaders agree is equally hard to find. Some urge exam reform, others believe that a return to grammar schools would solve everything, while studio schools (14-19 state-funded institutions designed to resemble workplaces) or a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are favoured elsewhere.

What they cannot argue is that they have not been given a say. When Gordon Brown came to power in 2007 he put employers at the heart of plans to make Britain an "education nation". The new prime minister appointed a series of high-profile business leaders to a National Council for Educational Excellence, which he chaired. The likes of Tesco's Leahy and the heads of Rolls-Royce, the CBI and investment bankers Merrill Lynch were joined by figures from the education sector on a venture that was supposed to herald a new era of cooperation between business and schools. By then, employers were already heavily involved in developing Labour's new 14-19 diplomas.

Mick Brookes, then general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, was hopeful. Industry would be so "up to their necks" in education that they would have to stop "throwing brickbats", he thought.

But things did not go according to plan. The now-defunct diplomas, with all their business involvement, turned out to be white elephants that had cost around pound;20,000 per successful candidate by November 2011, nearly four times the average per-pupil school funding in England.

Worse still, by 2009 the brickbats were back. Tesco boss Leahy may have been put at the heart of the government's drive for "educational excellence", but that did not prevent him from highlighting what he thought were its deficiencies.

"Sadly, despite all the money that has been spent, standards are still woefully low in too many schools," he said. "Employers like us are often left to pick up the pieces."

As far as Keates is concerned it is "always the same old story from business". "Successive governments have included business in the discussions about all the reforms they are making for education, but nothing appears to be good enough," the union leader observes.

But when TES spoke to Leahy last year, the former supermarket boss who sent his sons to independent schools was unrepentant about his damning description of state education. "That was a correct observation as an employer and as a member of society and a parent," he said.

But was it a reasonable comment from someone who two years earlier had agreed to be at the centre of a push to put it right? "You are asked to give advice, you give advice," he deadpanned. "Sometimes it is listened to and acted upon and sometimes it is listened to and not acted upon."

"Perhaps they (the Labour government) knew those things but focused rather too much on target setting," he concluded.

Frost, who as director general of the British Chambers of Commerce last year described British education as a "failure", also stands by his words.

"It is failure," he insists. "It is no good dancing around the issue. A position where getting on for half of kids leaving school don't have five decent GCSEs in a 21st-century globalised world is not the recipe for a successful future.

"In many parts of the country there is a yawning chasm between people coming out of school at 16 and what business actually needs."

One-sided debate

Keates argues that those making such claims receive an easy ride from the media. "It seems sometimes to be a very one-sided debate," she says. "When we make claims about things, the first thing we get asked is `where is your evidence?' But the CBI will do a survey and go to a business and say: `Have you had applications from people who can't read or write?' The survey comes back saying `yes', but nobody says to those employers: `Well, where is your evidence for all of this?'"

The union leader argues that what the evidence does show is that it is business that is not doing its bit when it comes to training the workforce. She points to a 2009 report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which shows that in 2005 UK employers were spending 1.3 per cent of their labour costs on training, compared with a European Union average of 1.6 per cent.

Moreover, Keates says, when there is any move to get business to improve its training, fierce resistance is mounted and ministers usually cave in. Last month, the government quietly revealed that it had decided not to implement a new law that would have meant businesses being fined for failing to ensure that employees below the new ages of compulsory participation in education or training - 17 from next summer and 18 from 2015 - were being trained.

"Our principal focus now must be on increasing growth and one aspect of that is by reducing burdens on employers," the Department for Education explained.

For Keates the outcome is a familiar one. "Every time (business leaders) are asked to step up to the mark they are found wanting," she says. "But they sit back in their armchairs criticising teachers who are doing fantastic things day in, day out."

Conservative peer Lord Baker of Dorking admits he found such criticism "helpful" as education secretary in the 1980s. Back then, he remembers, businesses were also saying that "schools produce children whom they can't employ". "I was able to quote those sorts of comments in support of the city technology colleges (forerunners of academies, sponsored by business) when I established them," he tells TES.

Baker says the same kind of critical comments have today helped him to set up new University Technical Colleges (UTCs). These state-funded, business- sponsored, 14-19 schools are being opened with the specific aim of meeting local employers' needs.

Some might see that as a positive development. But Keates views it with suspicion. She argues that UTCs and post-16 education in free schools are opportunities for businesses to "get state money to run what is effectively a training establishment for their own business so they can cherry-pick the best - and the rest, well they can go and survive out there if they can".

Not all teaching unions agree. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says it is wrong to dismiss UTCs, which he says have "some very interesting approaches to the curriculum". And Baker, who has always stressed that his new colleges are non-selective, describes Keates' comments as "very naive".

"Lots of companies already spend a huge amount on training, such as Rolls- Royce, National Grid and Network Rail," he says. "They have their own training schemes for their own staff because no one else trains them." Baker also points out that the vocational training in UTCs is partly funded by industry.

Getting industry involved

But even he admits that business has a far from perfect record in its dealings with education. Three years ago his trust commissioned academics to research why vocational education had struggled in England since the Victorian era.

"One of the reasons it has failed is that industry never really got very involved in trying to improve the education system - they were very aloof from it," he says.

"There was a report back in 1928 that found that the general view of industry was that they wanted the education system to produce pupils that were numerate, literate and obedient, and willing to take instructions and discipline and all the rest of it. They had been rather distant."

Plus ca change, some might say. But not Baker: "The position is much different now. They now realise that if they want to change things they have to roll up their sleeves a bit and help very substantially. Not just in day releases, but doing something much more fundamental."

That is what he says is happening in UTCs, with companies creating teaching modules and projects for pupils to study, such as a series of lessons from Rolls-Royce for 14- to 16-year-olds on producing piston pumps.

And there is other evidence of a change in attitude from business. The IoD traditionally led the results-day assault on school achievements. Ruth Lea, the institute's combative former head of policy, spent much of the 1990s and 2000s condemning "endemic and rampant grade inflation", "increasingly meaningless" exams and "laughable" results.

But these days the institute opts for a more measured tone. In 2009 it made a complete U-turn when its then director general, Miles Templeman, declared that results day was not the right time for a debate about education standards.

Even Frost, who still argues that education is failing, says that he has become "fed up with all the moaning" and that he is trying to help bridge the gap between education and "employability skills" in his new role as chairman of the Studio Schools Trust.

Working together

Over at the CBI, James Fothergill, head of education, says: "I don't think we get anywhere by carping and being critical from the sidelines.

"The members I work with don't want to be criticising the system, they want to be working with it, and see themselves as part of the system."

To that end, the confederation has begun a major research project, due to report in November, that aims to discover what is needed to build a schools system "fit for the 21st century".

Lightman, who sits on the steering committee, views it as a positive step. "I think it is very helpful that they are working constructively," the heads' leader says. "There has been quite a noticeable change from business."

So maybe the two communities are finally working together properly. A CBI report earlier this year effectively admitted what defenders of standards in state schools have long argued: that they are being unfairly judged against a mythical past.

"There was never a golden age of universal high attainment in literacy and numeracy," the report states. But as far as Frost is concerned there needs to be one now.

"It is not that (education) has got worse," he says. "For many young people it has got better. But undoubtedly the world of work is changing. At one time you could come out and get a job with pretty minimal skills.

"But it is not all Saturday Night and Sunday Morning where people are working on banks of machines any more. Businesses in Britain are competing every day of the week with companies across the globe where they have, it would appear, education systems that are relentlessly improving.

"It is not a question of hammering the teachers, but we have to drive up those standards if we are going to compete. Education can't stand still," Frost says.

Business does not always get exactly what it wants. One of Labour's ill- fated 14-19 diplomas - the engineering diploma - was held in particularly high regard by employers. However, a major incentive for schools to study it will be removed from 2014 when the government has said its worth in the league tables will be downgraded from the equivalent of five good GCSEs to just one.

Fothergill says some businesses who "devoted a lot of time and energy" feel bruised by the experience and could be put off from participating in the same way in the future.

If that did happen, Keates, who argues that businesses "never seem to be satisfied", would probably not be too surprised or, one suspects, too upset.

"Schools are about educating the whole child: educating them in a range of skills so that children are able to achieve their full potential and choose the careers they want," the teachers' leader insists.

"Schools aren't just about pandering to the needs of business."

Photo credit: Getty

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