If you’ve spent much time reading the business pages, you’ll be intimately aware of the debate about education raging through the world of industry. Even between our own covers, there’s been plenty of discussion on whether our schooling system is producing a generation of kids who are really ready for the demands of enterprise.
But rarely have we heard such a damning indictment as came from Lord Digby Jones, the former CBI boss and government trade ambassador, at our recent Elite Business National Conference & Exhibition, when he described the current state of play as an ‘obscenity’ for the enterprise community. During his stirring speech, Lord Jones highlighted that although companies should be responsible for providing adequate training for employees, they should not be held accountable for a young workforce that sorely lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills.
It’s inevitable that in a time there is a perceived paucity of talent there will be plenty of people expressing their frustrations with the system responsible. Certainly a lack of fundamental numeracy and literacy skills is alarming. But does this give us the full picture? Or is there a little more to serving the needs business community than refocusing on the three Rs?
“Languages are vital for the UK’s future,” Patrick Eve, managing director, TranslateMedia
It’s been widely reported that the number of UK students taking languages both at school and at university has fallen to the lowest level in a decade – despite more people going into higher education.
This is a huge issue for small businesses in Britain. Languages are vital for the UK’s future. No longer can the UK rely on the linguistic imperialism of the 20th century. Confidence in English as ‘the language of business’ is waning, as countries such as China, Brazil and Russia – where English is not widely spoken – become the dominant economies of the modern world.
The issue is partly due to the lack of progressive thinking in the way that students are taught languages. Students are often made to go over topics that they’ve studied previously due to having to allow other classmates who might just be starting the course to keep up. Many students are also bored with the repetition that accompanies being repeatedly taught the basics.
Another reason why there’s been a huge slump in students taking up foreign languages is that they are seen as important, but not essential. Schools are also popularising this myth by promoting the need for more students to take maths and science (quite rightly) but ignoring the importance of learning foreign languages for students’ employability and the future of the UK economy.
“A focus on soft skills training is essential,” Duncan Cheatle, founder & CEO, Prelude Group
The education system is much to blame for the recruitment troubles of SMEs, but not only in terms of its failure to ensure that young people have basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.
While the core qualifications are essential, little emphasis is placed on ‘softer’ skills that increase and enhance the employability of students and their chances to excel in the working world. For the vast majority of recruiters, both from personal experience and as shown in research time and again, these skills are more important than any specific technical or academic knowledge employees might bring.
However, we can’t place all the blame on teachers. How can we expect them to provide adequate careers advice when the majority went from school to university, then back to school? In terms of careers advice provision, while some careers officers are excellent, the quality can actually vary enormously.
This issue is not helped by government targets that, until recently, penalised schools for encouraging children into apprenticeships over university – even if that could provide a better route for the child. As a result, schools aren’t producing individuals who can easily develop in commercial environments and children often leave with skills that they cannot apply in the working world.
With SMEs’ stretched resources, they are not always able to invest in training people from the ground up. This is an immense problem for enterprise in Britain and a focus on soft skills training is essential.