Recent news that Britain is lagging behind its Asian counterparts in educational attainment is worrying for the UK as a whole and especially worrying for business. Arguments about the relevance of the OECD PISA test aside, it is undeniable that the UK needs a strong, relevant education system which generates intellectually confident young people if it is going to thrive on the world stage. Enhancing skills and improving learning opportunities for young people are paramount to ensuring jobs and economic prosperity for the nation.
It is something that we at the City of London Corporation are acutely aware of - bridging the gap between London's elite and those who are falling through the cracks of opportunity is one of the most troubling and pressing issues for us today. At a time when poverty is biting it is especially easy for people to fall off the radar and by letting them do this, we miss out on valuable assets for our society. It is not just altruism: in order for London and the UK as a whole to truly fulfil its potential, we must help all our young people to integrate fully into society and play an active part in strengthening it in the face of global competition. If London is to remain a leading hub for international business, we must tackle the twin problems of skills shortages and youth unemployment.
Together with additional funding for higher apprenticeships, the decision in the Autumn Statement to remove National Insurance contributions that affect a million and a half jobs for young people aged under 21 is welcome but we need to do more: any great city needs a competitive workforce in order to stay ahead. This cannot be achieved without a good education system and a commitment to improving skills across the board, but being an attractive and valued employee requires more than this - people with all types of skills are needed in the workplace, as are people who have the ability to innovate and look at things differently. It is rarely too early for school students to learn about the world of work. Education doesn't simply stop when a young person finishes school. Through mentoring schemes, apprenticeship programmes and work experience opportunities, young people can experience a working environment, gain new skills and learn about careers that they may not have thought open to them - and as a consequence raise aspirations.
The City Corporation alongside many other organisations, has played its part in promoting such programmes and bring thousands of young people into City workplaces every year on structured business taster sessions. We find that there is a fundamental mismatch between the aspirations of young people and the jobs available. Many young people who can literally see tower blocks occupied by big businesses from where they live would never think about seeking to work in those businesses. So anything which gives young people meaningful contact with the business world are of vital importance: research has shown that just four meaningful interactions with employers make young people five times more likely to get a job.
But this should not be just a numbers game. We must be vigilant that these opportunities genuinely do provide valuable training and a route into real and sustained jobs. Many people including teachers and mentors and institutions are working hard to raise education standards and employment prospects in the UK and in some areas with excellent results. The City is one such organisation. We have benefitted by learning from others and are fortunate to have charitable funds that can be used to promote education and employability projects throughout London. But this is still not good enough, and we must continue to focus all our efforts on bringing the poorest performing schools and students up to standard. The stunning improvements shown in a number of schools have demonstrated once and for all that no child is uneducable and that excuses relating to background are no longer acceptable. And the solution is not more money, but rather outstanding leadership by education authorities, governors and heads, and outstanding teaching.
We are determined to make best use of our resources to have the maximum possible impact, so as to help businesses, London and the UK as a whole - because a skilled and educated workforce if essential in an ever more competitive world.