I was interviewed for the radio yesterday. The call came through just as I was about to pop out for the evening and so I don’t remember which station it was. But the subject was a report issued yesterday claiming that business leaders felt that 16-18 year olds were ill prepared for the world of work. It’s a story we hear frequently, often misreported, criticising young people for poor literacy and numeracy skills, poor interpersonal skills and a lack of creativity and initiative.
The report only looked at entry level employees who had chosen not to go to University. This very definition alone is problematic in that every focus in government policy over the past five years has been done with an almost blinkered and single minded aim to get kids into universities, preferably Russell Group ones. The very fact that some children are resisting this pathway means they have already, in the eyes of government, failed.
It used to be common for people to leave school at 16 or 18 and enter youth training schemes in which companies accepted that the responsibility for initiation into work lay with them. My parents and grandparents were full of funny stories about the tricks played on the gullible new intake – sending them to shops for “long stands” and the like. They were viewed with good humour, kindness and patience. Nowadays, these new workers are derided before they’ve even stepped through the door. These entry level posts are too often offered with poor pay and conditions and little training. Good apprenticeships are too few and the criteria for entering them too confused – one was offered this week that demanded experience – isn’t that the point? To give them experience?
There are bigger issues though – one is the fact that GCSE is not fit for purpose. It tries to cover all bases – functional skills and the abstract knowledge base required for further study. Surely it would be far better to create a national standard test (not necessarily in examination form) for functional skills in literacy and numeracy and leave the Maths and English GCSEs to then be taken as choices by those wanting to pursue higher qualifications?
The reason I question whether or not the functional tests should be done in exam conditions is simply that we know (Wiliam and Wylie 2006) that knowledge learned for a test tends not to transfer to proximal contexts. Like the workplace. So maybe we need to find other ways to assess these competencies.
Moreover, we really need to think about how we place articulacy at the heart of learning processes. Too often I read scathing comments about group work, pupil talk, collaboration and other so-called “soft skills” by those who state that any education that is not academic is encouraging low expectations. But I think it is vital that our children can converse, work in a team, think quickly in a tricky situation and make a decision and that they are able to interact effectively with other human beings. These skills most of all were found to be lacking in this report.
It seems clear, that we need to consider vocational skills and routes, to invest in high quality careers education, build links with business partners and invest in the kinds of educational skills that make people ready for work. But instead we get a repeated mantra that an academic education is what is required. That any detractors from this are betraying the poor (as if rich pupils can’t be unacademic or want a different kind of working life). And so we get a new desperate measure in a mean spirited and underfunded education bill.
New floor targets for schools deemed to be coasting (which as Becky Allen pointed out today will hit those serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds hardest). An emphasis on the Ebacc (which has barely any content relevant to a work place in it). Conversions to academies rather than spending money on children’s services and support networks? What an utter waste of time. Only people who had gone from academic life to political life (perhaps via the equally remote and abstract field of law) could come up with such an unsuitable solution to an obvious problem.
Personally I think that education must and should be about more than being “work ready” – but all these skills are transferable to life, friendships, relationships and happiness as well as the world of work. Isn’t it time we said No? Isn’t it time we said to Nicky Morgan “Raise the bar as high as you like – we’re not vaulting”. Because if we try to make everyone better than average – try to meet spurious targets that have nothing to do with reality (how sick I am of politicians saying “all children must” as if the disabled are invisible and don’t matter) we’ll end up playing all the sickening games to get children through tests that we’re told are “cheating”. We’ll be complicit in the huge rises in self harming, suicide attempts and mental health issues our young are facing. We’ll create even more automatons who daren’t use initiative at work because it has never been asked of them. We’ll ultimately fail them.
Let’s do what we know is right for children. If 440,000 teachers in this country said No, there would be little anyone could do to make us perform tasks we deem to be harmful and ultimately ineffective. And that bar will be far too high for us to bang our heads on in any case.