Employers and education experts must work together to prepare the young for the demands of work in the 21st century. By Peter Wickens.
Rarely a day goes by without a politician making a statement about the inadequacies of our education system and teachers firing off a salvo in riposte.
Businessmen complain about the standard of young people's skills after leaving school. And the debate about teaching methods continues.
Though not an education expert, I do care deeply about the future competitiveness of our nation and, therefore, am keen to debate how we can best prepare young people for the demands that the world of work will place on them in the 21st century.
Regretfully, many of those involved in education seem not to care about the world of work, but speak of 'preparation for life'. I have never thought there was much difference between the two: a good education should achieve both.
Another problem is that few of those involved in education really understand the major changes that are taking place in the world of work. I do not only mean the shift between the service and manufacturing sectors, or the move from physical to knowledge-based jobs, but the fundamental change in attitude that has already taken place in the best organisations and which will be needed in all of them if they are to survive and succeed in the 21st century. Changes such as devolved decision-making, more teamwork, rapid response to the customer, continuous improvement, the commitment to quality and flexibility are evident in all sectors of industry and and have an impact on all workers.
Many recent reports have dwelt on the deficiencies of our education system. But such assessments are themselves often deficient as they are frequently based on the requirements of a decade or so ago - not those of the 21st century.
All young people must be encouraged to try to achieve their full potential in a wide range of subjects and to be continuously learning. They should also be taught how to appreciate cultural and social experiences and be equipped to challenge constructively at least some conventional wisdoms, as well as to make informed decisions about their own futures.
If we in the business community could believe that schools achieved these objectives, we would not complain. On the contrary, we would be only too happy to work with them as partners, giving them the benefit of our experience from a business perspective. Then, perhaps, many of the numerous third party groups trying to establish school/industry links would be unnecessary.
Teamwork and flexibility obviously cannot be treated as subjects in themselves, but they could be learnt as part of a broad curriculum. Such a curriculum, for those up to the age of 16, should include mathematics, English, information technology, a language, science, the humanities, vocational subjects, sport and social services. The national curriculum is too prescriptive but its objectives are right. Final assessment should consist of a mixture of written examination and project work. Non-academic achievements must also be recorded.
Twenty per cent of pupils pass their 'A' levels and go on to do highly specialised, short degree courses. But this is not what 21st-century business requires. Although there needs to be a core group of subjects studied by all (English, science and technology, a foreign language and international studies), from age 16 students should also be able to select additional combinations, such as: maths, physics and chemistry; business studies, accounting and economics; or materials technology, engineering and mechanics. This list should be as varied as possible and all subjects examinable. Vocational options must have the same status as the academic, and be accepted by universities.
The university don may argue that such a programme would mean that students would arrive less well prepared for their specialist topic and would therefore need longer at university. But we do not require vast numbers of undergraduates educated to the 'n'th degree of specialisation. The purpose of university education must be to develop analytical thinking, impart high-quality knowledge and provide a broad base from which specific skills can subsequently be grown.
Even with no previous knowledge, three years is, in the majority of cases, sufficient. To achieve 21st-century success, however, other changes must be made: single-subject courses must be the exception; high-quality breadth rather than low-quality depth is needed; practical use of IT must feature throughout; all courses should help students to reason objectively and develop analytical thinking; vocational courses should be broad-based and more evenly balanced between theory and practice; and the study of a foreign language is essential.
It must be made easier for mature people to attend university. A wider variety of qualifications should be accepted and flexible attendance patterns developed.
All teachers and academics must gain regular exposure to the world of work - of whatever type - and employers must accept them. We cannot complain about standards if we do nothing to help. Teachers must have the pay and facilities appropriate to an important profession - but they have to earn respect. The important point is to regard education and learning as a process of continuous development throughout life. Employers also have failed abysmally in this respect. But unless there is a true understanding of the major changes in the world of work and unless our children are properly prepared, employers will be building on sand.