I've been fortunate to attend five educational establishments in my life; one primary school, two secondary schools and two universities.
Although there's a lot I've forgotten from what was seventeen years of my life I've no doubt these places shaped who I am today. I didn't love every minute, I wasn't great at every subject and not every teacher inspired me (maybe I didn't inspire them either!) But as well as teaching me some essentials, education opened my eyes to the world, challenged me to be the best I could and gave me the confidence to get on in life. Some of my tutors and teachers did make decisive interventions changing my direction. My story would've been very different if they hadn't had a hand in the script.
Whilst formal education is hugely valuable, going all the way through to university isn't for everyone (although it's perhaps worth noting that Tony Blair's target of 50% going to university is on the cusp of being reached). So we need to keep developing the menu of options for young people, increasing the scope of jobs where you can do an apprenticeship, encouraging more employers to offer management training with a degree and of course investing in our colleges and universities. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission noted recently that education is the primary way of ending the cycle of poverty in some families. So we need to break down the barriers that make it harder for the least well off to go to university or to access the best training. All the main political parties seem to agree on this but change is still not coming fast enough.
As we offer training opportunities to a lot of young people I'm often asked two questions:
a) do people need a degree to get a job with us and if so what sort; and
b) whether schools and universities equip young people with the skills employers need?
My answers are simple enough. We're mostly looking for character and potential not qualifications as such, so you definitely don't need a degree to work with us. However, to work for us candidates need to demonstrate intelligence and commitment and that they've done something with their lives so far. Doing a degree isn't the only way to prove that. But it is the most obvious way.
If getting a degree can make a difference, what subjects are best? Because I run a business I'm a fan of business degrees but again the choice of subject is only one factor in our decision making process. We're trying to work out if the candidate has a focused approach to their future not if they know one or other theories of management. I hope we can teach them all they'll need to know about that topic!
A lot of business people say we're not equipping young people with the skills they need for work. I don't agree. I'm pretty sure today's young people are better educated than ever before! Whilst some roles do have specific requirements the bottom line for me is candidates just need capability in English and Maths and to be able to demonstrate communication skills. In most cases it's the responsibility of employers to train their staff to do their specific jobs.
I do think schools, universities and employers could work more closely together though. And I agree strongly with Lord Young of Graffham, the Government's "Enterprise Czar" that there is much more we can and must do to embed a culture of entrepreneurship into our education system. Historically we've placed a much higher value on being a doctor, lawyer or accountant than starting your own business, yet people starting new businesses is exactly what our economy needs. Those graduates who have been encouraged into business have tended to join our biggest companies not the small and medium sized enterprises where most people actually work. Yet I would argue that it's often these growing companies that offer more innovation, opportunity and potential for reward.
So I want to see schools and universities building greater links to entrepreneurial companies and those companies inspiring young people by showing them what business is really all about. If only young people could get a taste of the excitement and reward running your own company brings I'm sure more of them would want to start one. Maybe every educational institution should start by having an entrepreneur on its governing board?