Do we have the relationship between education and employment right?
I would be surprised if many readers thought that we did. Everyone will have their own views as to what precisely still needs to be done, but there is general agreement that the world of education needs to be brought into a closer and more purposeful relationship with the world of work. At present, and despite massive government investment, employers feel that the educational goods are not being delivered.
Take the results of a recent survey which the Institute of Management conducted of its members: a staggering 80% of managers said that school leavers lacked essential skills such as literacy and numeracy - skills which must be regarded, in normal circumstances, as minimum requirements for employability; and 72% of respondents doubted graduates' suitability as job applicants.
Given such concerns, what needs to be done? Before setting out some specific suggestions, I must make one thing clear. It is obvious that an education system which does not equip young people to obtain and hold down a job is falling at the first hurdle. While we have some outstanding schools and many committed highly professional teachers, too many youngsters leave school without the knowledge, the skills and the attitudes they need to make a success of their adult lives. This does not, however, in my view mean that our thinking about education should be driven by utilitarian, and only utilitarian, goals. We must never lose sight of the importance of a traditional, liberal education. Not all children will want - or be able - to pursue each or indeed any disciplines to any great depth. But all must have the opportunity to see if such learning is for them, and those who demonstrate that particular combination of aptitude and aspiration upon which advanced academic study depends must continue to be able to pursue their individual goals.
Two things follow. The first is that the National Curriculum is a very important step forward in that it represents a basic entitlement which all children, at least until the age of14, should have - the opportunity to learn. The initial blueprint may have been badly flawed logistically and there are certainly problems within individual subjects which will need to be solved at the next review. These weaknesses must not, however, be allowed to undermine the significance of the concept as a whole. The second, and I shall return to this point towards the end of my argument, is that, despite protestations to the contrary, we must, on the one hand, preserve the integrity of academic qualifications post-16, and, on the other, continue to work to introduce rigorous and intelligible vocational qualifications which meet employer needs.
First, though, let us think for a moment about what happens in primary schools. OFSTED's recent inspection of reading in three London boroughs showed that some40% of children were leaving primary school with reading ages of eight or below. This means that they will not be able to deal with the demands of the secondary school curriculum. Many of the schools involved in this inspection had significant numbers of children whose first language was not English and were serving very disadvantaged communities.
The picture nationally is brighter, but even in more favoured LEAs there is significant under-achievement in reading, and there may be even greater problems of under-achievement in writing and in basic arithmetic. The first and most important thing we can do in education to meet employers' criticisms is to raise standards of achievement in these basic skills.
It is in primary schools that this must be done. We hear a great deal these days about the need to 'embed key skills' in every post-16 examination course. But this is a classic case of shutting the stable door. It ignores, moreover, what any teacher will tell you: the older a child is, the more difficult it is to teach that child to read. The answer lies in the primary phase, and the Government's recent decision to establish literacy and numeracy centres in 25 inner-city communities is a very important first move towards addressing the problem.
Children must leave primary school literate and numerate. They also need to have been taught the basics of right and wrong, to understand the importance of practical virtues such as punctuality, and to be able to function positively within teams and within the school community as a whole. Most schools are in fact good at instilling positive attitudes and behaviour, though it is clear from employers' anecdotes that secondary schools could do more to help job applicants to present themselves at interviews in the best possible light.
Turning more generally to secondary education, we need to recognise that by the age of 14 individual students are going to differ very considerably one from another in terms of their talents and ambitions. It is fashionable nowadays to play down these differences and to dwell gloomily on the dangers of premature and wrong-headed choices. Certainly careers advice needs to be improved and, up to a point, we need to make it possible for youngsters to change direction if at 16 they make what turn out to be the wrong decisions. That said, it is now possible, following Sir Ron Dearing's review, for young people post-14 to spend some 40% of their time on courses designed to meet their particular needs. These opportunities should be seized. We need to recognise that some 14-year-olds are most likely to benefit from vocational courses and to ensure that their achievements pre-16 lead through to further training when they leave school.
Conversely, as I have already suggested, we must ensure that those students who wish to pursue academic studies have every opportunity to do so and hence to develop their intellectual talents. Only when we achieve higher standards of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, when all schools foster the moral understanding and positive attitudes upon which success in employment and, indeed, adult life, depend, and when we have finally sorted out education and training post-14 will we have the skills base that industry and commerce needs if as a nation we are to remain competitive in an ever more competitive world.