Take note now, we're evolving

18th July 2008 at 01:00
The primary intake this September will still be working come 2070. Madeleine Brettingham takes a long hard look at how to prepare them for the jobs market of the future
The primary intake this September will still be working come 2070. Madeleine Brettingham takes a long hard look at how to prepare them for the jobs market of the future

They might not be able to work a BlackBerry or explain the meaning of the phrase "management consultant" (let's face it, who can?), but the children who start school this September will still be in the workforce come 2070.

Many of the primary schools they will join are embracing skills-based curricula and new technology. But are they going far enough to equip their pupils with the aptitudes they need to survive in the workplace of the future?

It's a tricky question, given that many of the tools in use in today's businesses - Google, virtual conferencing, online networking and PowerPoint - were innovations that the former Microsoft boss Bill Gates could only have dreamt about 20 years ago.

But that makes it all the more vital for educators to keep up with the pace of change, according to reformers. Professor Stephen Heppell, the former director of e-learning centre Ultralab, thinks the key is getting to grips with a new generation of gadgets.

"The single biggest problem is that schools are still embracing Nineties technology," says Professor Heppell, who is currently practising what he preaches by filing work online while in the Cayman Islands. "The old system is based on desktop computers and lockdown networks, while businesses use a mass of media - smartphones, BlackBerries and presentations."

Teamwork

New systems such as Google Docs, a free program that allows users to collaborate on documents simultaneously from different locations, will be vital in accustoming pupils to modern work practices, he argues.

"Many schools still have a person standing in front of the class doing the teaching, with children examined on everything at the end of it, despite the fact they'll probably never write a timed essay again," he says.

"In fact, everything they're going to do in the world of work will be team-based, and many more people will be working remotely. They need to get used to these things or they may find it difficult in the future."

The importance of teamwork and other so-called soft skills is something that is constantly reiterated by commentators.

Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair and now chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, whose Opening Minds scheme aims to develop abilities such as problem-solving and group work, says employers no longer look for paper qualifications but "self-confidence and adaptability".

He argues that earning power has become divorced from traditional educational achievement. Businesses aren't looking for A-levels and PhDs, but team players who are at home with chairing meetings and online networking.

Taylor is not the only one to argue for an increasing emphasis on workplace nous. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a regular critic of educational standards, has complained that not only do young graduates lack soft skills - the problem-solving, teamwork and adaptability critical to workplace success - but they haven't mastered the hard skills they need to back them up. Despite GCSE pass rates - not to mention results of maths and literacy tests - marching steadily upwards over the past decade, 40 per cent of employers complained their new recruits couldn't read or add up sufficiently in the CBI's last survey.

"A lot of young people still don't achieve a C or above in GCSE English and maths," says Susan Anderson, the confederation's director of HR policy (last year the proportion who missed out was about 40 and 45 per cent respectively). She disputes that these skills won't be as valuable in the modern economy. "Maths is vital to financial services, sales and marketing, IT and general management. If you're highly numerate, you'll always be in demand."

Of course, part of the problem is predicting what kind of jobs pupils will be walking into in a decade or two's time. It's a truism that the majority of vacancies advertised in newspaper job sections didn't exist half a century ago. You'd have been hard pushed to find a systems manager or corporate responsibility officer at General Motors or Lloyds Bank circa 1950.

So how can you prepare pupils for a constantly changing market? Stephen Uden, head of skills and economic affairs at Microsoft UK, thinks the answer is to provide market data to pupils as soon as they start choosing their options.

Create

"After the success of TV series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, lots of people studied to become forensic pathologists only to find that there wasn't much demand for them," he says. Letting older pupils see which jobs are oversubscribed and which are begging for applicants could help them to plan their futures. And, of course, being a Microsoft employee, one of the areas he's most concerned about is IT.

"Over the next two years, 600 new IT businesses will be created in the UK, and 140,000 new jobs. Everyone at school is taught to use a computer. But we need people who can create and maintain systems too." The industry is hoping the new ICT diploma, launched this autumn, will go some way towards addressing the gap.

Not everyone is convinced that the national curriculum should be shaken up to suit the business world however. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, says that there is an inherent danger in responding too fast to the whims of industry.

"If we teach the skills that seem relevant now, they can easily become outdated," he says, citing shorthand as a skill that was prized 50 years ago and, thanks to voice recorders and laptops, is going fast out of date today.

"The traditional subjects have served us well for 2,000 years, and should continue to form the basis of education," Professor Smithers says. As to the suggestion that such information is no longer valuable in a post-Wikipedia world, he says: "The subjects aren't just facts, they're a way of establishing the truth. In science, it's about hypothesising and testing. In history, it's about examining the documents. You still need that basic understanding to decide what's relevant and what isn't."

But reservations aside, the Government has been quick to respond to concerns from businesses about the employability of school leavers, introducing functional skills at GCSE and diploma level from 2010, and encouraging schools to move towards a competency-based approach to teaching with the paring down of the key stage 3 curriculum.

The launch of diplomas next term - in health, media, ICT, engineering and construction - could be a boon for employers if, as is hoped, they place more emphasis on teamwork and provide scope for multi-media projects instead of written essays.

Forward thinkers believe this is the start of a brave new programme to prepare pupils for the 21st-century workplace.

"It depends if we can properly embrace new ways of working," says Professor Heppell. "But if we can, A-levels and the like will start to look dated quickly."

What should we teach our children?

The question has plagued educators in Britain since the industrial revolution changed the face of the labour market in the 18th century, and the medieval curriculum of Latin and Greek was deemed too outmoded to educate future industrialists.

A new curriculum, focusing on subjects such as science, maths and English, was pioneered by boarding schools such as Marlborough College (founded 1843), while girls were given an education that made room for cookery and needlework.

By the mid-20th century, vocational skills were once again on the agenda when Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944 created a tripartite education system: grammar schools for would-be white collar workers, technical schools for those going into science and industry, and secondary moderns for the rest.

The system was criticised for pigeonholing children, but survived intact until the Sixties. Soon after, with British industry changing irrevocably as mines closed and our manufacturing base declined, a fresh debate broke out about how to make pupils work-ready. In the Eighties, the Conservatives introduced "new vocationalism", intended to prepare lower-achieving youngsters for a life in the workplace, amid criticisms from industry that they weren't sufficiently skilled.

But with the workplace changing fast, the Labour Government is trying again with the diplomas launch next term. These courses - in subjects such as ICT and media - are aimed at preparing pupils for a labour market where more than two thirds of jobs come from the service industry, compared with more than a tenth in manufacturing.

Face of the new workers

- 2.5 per cent of the UK labour force work from home.

- Two-thirds of UK workers are employed in the service industry, compared to a tenth in manufacturing.

- Internet use has increased tenfold over the past decade, from 147 million users worldwide to more than 1,400 million.

- Paris Hilton and David Beckham are the main career models for today's pupils, according to more than a third of teachers.

Sources: Labour market Survey, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, www.internetworldstats.com

What do you think?

"I'm wary of the idea that the purpose of education is to produce people for the market. Education is for helping people to understand themselves. How can I be good? What does it mean to be happy?

But as a profession we're more conscious of the fact that we're turning children out into a world that's different and we have to skill them up. That doesn't mean teaching them how to use machinery, but teaching them skills so they can move between different jobs, some of which don't yet exist.

We encourage co-operative learning, and moving away from the power dynamic of 'I am the expert.'

Now you can find out anything I've ever done in all my degrees in two hours online. The question is, what are you going to do with it?

Being able to use information and structure an argument is important, and so is critical thinking.

We are bombarded by arguments from politicians and the media. We've got to produce people with a bullshit detector."

Ian Jamison is head of RE at Kingsbridge Community College, and won Secondary School Teacher of the Year at the 2007 Teaching Awards

"I want to be a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot and there are certain skills you need for any job.

In Year 7 we learn how to find and use information and teamwork, which is important for all subjects and in the workplace. It teaches you to work with people who aren't your friends, because chances are you won't be working with your friends in the future.

I think we should practise writing job applications in English. I also think that because in the past 20 years the internet has taken off, ICT skills will be necessary. That's why I'm taking an ICT GCSE. We will also need to work with people across the world because technology will make it easier to communicate with people in other places."

Matty Brydon is a Year 8 pupil at John Cabot Academy in Bristol

"You have to have a little bit of confidence to survive in the workplace. If you want to be a manager or employee you have to be able to talk to people and do interviews.

I think it would be good to do a day's work experience in the lower years to prepare you for work."

Daisy Hamill is a Year 8 pupil at John Cabot Academy in Bristol.

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