But schools can also play a part in boosting higher-level skills - the post-A-level standard professional, technical and scientific skills that the UK's companies will desperately need in the future to have any hope of competing in the global economy. Even if it's universities and further education colleges that will have to teach these skills, schools have a vital role to play in preparing young people and encouraging them down the right path - whether that's academic or vocational.
MT recently went to Cheltenham College, an independent school in south-west England, to see one example of how this might work in practice. The school has just introduced a 'Leadership and Life Skills' course for its lower-sixth formers (or whatever they're called these days), which is specifically intended to make sure that they leave school better prepared for further education and/or the world of work. Based around the concept of 'servant leadership', the classes take place out of the classroom (in the cricket pavilion, to be precise) and focus on taking lessons from real-life stories. At the end of the course, the students are awarded a certificate of personal effectiveness (if they pass an exam).
'The course is about self-discovery, and being more effective,' says Mike Todd, the teacher in charge. This idea of self-evaluation was seen as a key benefit of the course, both by students and teachers - it helps them understand themselves and what they're doing much better. This helps to boost self-esteem and emotional intelligence, Todd suggests, as well as improving their goal-setting and prioritisation - all qualities they'll need in spades in later life. 'It's part of what I call the 'super-curriculum',' as headmaster Dr Alex Peterken puts it. 'Academics alone aren't enough any more. At interview you need something else to set you apart'. After all, with youth unemployment at record levels, young people need all the help they can get.
Peterken also thinks it's particularly important for schools to foster leadership skills because of the way the world is changing. 'Ten years ago, they might have watched stuff together; now it's more fragmented and individual. There's a danger that there's less social interaction now'. In which case, schools can play a useful role in encouraging kids to actually talk to each other more.
Cheltenham isn't exactly your average school. For a start, it's fee-paying - so it needs to work hard to offer parents a good return on their investment. Equally, its pupils generally come from well-off backgrounds; they're bright, motivated, ambitious and incredibly polished for children of their age (MT met one pair who were combining their studies with running a business converting chip fat into bio-diesel; others were throwing themselves into Young Enterprise projects, while the senior prefects talked confidently about how the role has improved their leadership, delegation and motivational skills). So it's starting from a much higher baseline.
Nonetheless, it's hard to argue that the benefits of its new leadership course wouldn't be equally compelling in other schools too. More so, if anything. So let's hope it's the first of many.