'We must try to aspire more'

5th May 1995 at 01:00
The job of education is not to produce cannon-fodder for industry. I believe the real task is to enable everyone to use as much of their capability as is humanly possible. I believe you need a balanced society with high levels of self-belief and self-esteem. Which comes from winning, not from losing.

I think our education system can be attacked for telling people what they cannot do, not what they can do - unless you're lucky enough to be one of the minority who go to university each year - and this is to some degree responsible for our appallingly low levels of aspiration; as individuals and as a country. I believe that's a direct result of the way we educate our people.

All of the firms I saw during the Troubleshooter series were all satisfied with a level of performance below their capability. I've visited hundreds and asked every one what proportion of their capacity they actually use. I haven't found one claiming to use more than 60 per cent - people are capable of very much more.

Take attitudes towards learning. I have yet to find any British company which spends more than 6 per cent on training. Whereas if you look at a firm like Nikon, 7 per cent is spent in a stable year and in an unstable year they go up to 20 per cent.

If you offer an English person a training course they're very likely to refuse it. They look on it as a threat, not as an opportunity. British people are terrified of being made to look duffers.

None of this is a criticism of our higher education system; or of education funding. The available evidence is that we spend much the same as Germany or Japan. We're not hopelessly out in comparison with the highest spenders. But we get a much worse result for it. And it's not because our teachers are lazy.

The difference in aspiration between kids from the same sort of backgrounds in different schools is mind-boggling. It's partly a matter of their own self-belief. One of the reasons for our resistance to change is lack of belief that we can master new skills. Business and industry are a microcosm of the community in which we live and we can't expect that they will be materially different to the community. If we have a community with a feeling of shabby gentility and decline we will not succeed. Business is locked in combat with the best in the world. We actually have to earn our living in the world in competition. Most business is about working through and with people and that's about learning. It's not about fact. You can tell people a truth until they're blue in the face but unless they're interested in it and believe it and find it emotionally assimilable, they won't accept it. You learn though the arts.

In fact, we have an unbelievably fecund artistic capability in this country. But if we allow that capability to wither on the vine we'll be in trouble. We have exceeding success we never even think about: our writers, for example; we also fight well outside our weight in all sorts of musical fields.

Our artistic creativity is very, very high. We turn out more industrial designers than the whole of the rest of Europe put together. You look at any well-designed, manufactured product from abroad, and the balance of probability is that it's been designed by British people.

To cope with a changing world we need people of imagination, creativity and vision and with the self-confidence to adapt. That's why I believe so passionately that it doesn't matter precisely where the talents of our people are so long as it's recognised that everybody has some talent. The job of the educator is to find it.

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