Bellerbys Brighton

After being made aware of a shocking statistic surrounding school-leavers’ lack of essential business skills, SBT looks at the apparent gap between the education system’s requirements and business needs, also contemplating the impact of the new changes to GCSE and A Levels

A recent survey by the business group, CIMA has reported that a shocking eight out of ten British school-leavers ‘lack essential business skills’.

More than 80% of young people require ‘significant training’ before being put to work, according to the 4,000 finance professionals questioned – a figure that’s worse than last year, when 75% of school-leavers were found to need more training before entering the working world.

Numeracy was one of the weaknesses of school-leavers, which is a skill often found to be in need of improvement, but above all, people and business skills seem to be worst hit.

In 2013, Michael Gove announced changes to the education system which aimed to rescue this lack of essential – but wholly academic – skills from having a detrimental effect on young people’s futures, businesses and therefore the economy. The new GCSE and A Level system, set in motion as we speak, is set to ‘equip our children to go onto higher education or a good apprenticeship’ according to Gove: “That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history; more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science; more testing of mathematics in science GCSEs, to improve progression to A Levels; more challenging mechanics problems in physics; a stronger focus on evolution and genetics in biology; and a greater focus on foreign language composition, so that pupils require deeper language skills.”

This all sounds rather impressive to the unaffected bystander, but British firms are struggling more and more, according to CIMA research, to find skilled candidates for junior roles: 31% of firms more than two months to fill junior roles, and on appointment, three quarters need further training. More than 90% of those surveyed in the UK reported that their workload had increased as a result of skills shortages, with 46% agreeing it had caused a fall in departmental performance. However, the top areas of weakness for new recruits seem to be much more on the side of ‘soft skills’, such as people skills alongside essential business know-how rather than the more academic skills that Gove advocates. With the new GCSE and A Level system focusing more and more on academics, and getting students from one education system to the next, these more ‘real-world’ skills seem to be getting gradually left by the wayside, creating concern in the business community.

In addition, subjects that have served students well over the years are being scrapped. Pupils sitting AS exams in AQA History of Art next year and A-level exams in 2018 will be the last of their kind, and there are numerous other subjects that offer a vast range of applicable skills and essential real-world application that are being abolished by the new system.

Simon Mower, Principal of Bellerbys College, Brighton gave us an overview of the changes being made to GCSEs and A Levels: “Essentially, the structure of the A Level course will be reverting to the way it was a number of years ago. Instead of each of the two years being examined separately (i.e. exams at the end of Year 1 and exams at the end of Year 2), it will be a two-year course with just one set of examinations at the end.”

Bellerbys Brighton Principal Simon Mower.
Bellerbys Brighton Principal Simon Mower.

Simon continued: “Examination boards seem to have used the A Level reforms, and thus the re-writing of each syllabus, to review the subjects being offered. History of Art, Classics and Archaeology are all under the axe. In all of these subjects the numbers of students have been getting fewer year on year and the number of qualified teachers in these specialist areas are also declining. This in turn means that there is smaller pool of potential examiners and markers for the papers. Simply put, the subjects are no longer seen to be viable in business terms.”

Although these subjects aren’t necessarily viewed by most as ‘essential’, in particular in the eyes of current academia, the trend that our education system seems to be reverting to is a worrying one. What is deemed a ‘soft’ subject by academics is not a realistic reflection on the needs of either young people or businesses – or indeed the future workforce.

Of course these cuts have a lot more to do with the economy rather than a label of necessity, but nevertheless we are seeing more and more businesses shouting out for new recruits who have analytical skills, people skills, business and vocational experience.

Simon added: “These subjects are not soft subjects. The subjects that tend to be classified as ‘soft’ are those that are of a more practical or vocational type, for example media studies and design technology. What is crazy, though, is that Brighton, for example, has an ever-growing reputation for media and new technologies. More and more, companies are moving to the area. With this in mind, it is arguable that media is the subject of choice, one in which schools can work closely with businesses, giving students live projects and real world experiences. It does seem that this ‘real world’ approach is becoming increasingly attractive to employers and is challenging more traditional, theory-based degree courses, especially for those students that want to get ahead in the workplace as soon as possible.”

It’s this ‘real world approach’ that has provided much debate among employers and educators over the years, and it seems to me to be reaching almost a crisis point. We spoke to Matt Turner, Founder and CEO of Creative Pod, who told us his opinion on the education system: “In my opinion, the education system as it is now doesn’t prepare young people for the real world. At a very basic level, the day isn’t long enough – in no job will they be heading home at 3pm, and they go from what they’ve known for 15, 16 or even 18 years to a completely alien environment.

“One of the major struggles I have found with young people is that none of them know how to use a phone! Something so simple, yet I find more and more than students leaving school just don’t have those raw soft skills that are so necessary in any job.

“I find it ridiculous that the curriculum doesn’t include the teaching of these essential skills, and more importantly that no subject reverts back to real world applications. Students are very rarely, if ever told how to apply what they enjoy or are good at to a future career; how much earning potential they have from choosing from GCSEs; what they can expect from a job when pursuing a certain path. What then happens is that everyone comes out of education expecting to ‘win’, and that simply isn’t the case – we need to be setting up the right aspirations as well as expectations.

He concluded: “Overall, the education system is wholly disconnected to the way the world is now, and has been ignorant to the evolution of business over the years.”

With the A Level system catered to a certain niche criteria (i.e. to help students get into university) it seems education has lost touch with its application in the real world. For those who leave education at 18, or even 16 and wish to pursue a career in business, the possibilities are suddenly fairly limited without a huge amount of additional work experience that can only be achieved in a student’s own time.

According to the companies surveyed by CIMA, the lack of skills among new hires is having a negative effect on the economy as a whole, with more than 90 per cent saying their workload had increased as a result of skills shortages, while 66 per cent said it was increasing the stress levels of workers and 44 per cent saw a fall in departmental performance as a result.

Noel Tagoe, Executive Director of CIMA Education commented: “The divide between employers and educators remains vast, raising the cost burden on British firms and holding back the productivity of the workforce. The realities of the workplace must be better reflected in the classroom through discussion and practical experience.”

He added: “We need young people to be passionate about their career choices, preparing the path so that we can all share in their future success.” Arguably, some of this passion is lost through the focus on exams and achieving ‘success’ via Higher Education. Students have unending pressure to achieve the highest grade they can in order to get into the best University they can, but sidelining working applications of skills is an essential ingredient in the decline of business skills and economic growth.

Simon takes a more positive view on the education system changes, viewing them as a great potential to improve skills application in the real world:

“I believe the combination of more vocational and practical courses, as well as the reformed A levels, provides a variety of options for all young people today. So, in my view, the changes are for the good. Those of us who have been in education for some time will be philosophical about the changes as we have seen them before and know that in ten years’ time the debate will have come full circle.”