A top-quality education system should prepare our young people for the future. It should teach students the skills they need to find suitable jobs that secure a good quality of life. Or, if they choose, equip these young people with the skills, determination and confidence to start their own businesses, creating jobs and income for themselves and others. But, how do we make this happen? How, after all the talk, time and short-term policy making, do we create an education system that prepares our children for the future?
Time to de-politicise and start taking the long-term view
I think it's time to step back from the skirmishes of day-to-day politics and make the space to take the long-term view. Short-term political jockeying has undermined the longer-term priority of instilling in our young people not only high level academic results but also important work skills and attitudes. We need to find a way to get beyond the headlines, quarterly reports and u-turns. We need a restructured system that focuses firmly on the long-term priorities of young people and employers, in a sustainable way, thereby strengthening our country.
We need to face the fact that continued short-term education policies, going back decades, are harming our young people, primarily through tragic levels of youth unemployment. We must put aside our differences, come together and think about the skills our young people will need not only in five years, or ten years, but in 20 years, bearing in mind that we don't know what the jobs of the future will look like! It's no use just teaching our students the skills and knowledge that they need right now. We need to prepare them with the skills they'll need regardless of how the world changes.
If we manage this, it will also benefit the British economy. It will mean our young people have the competencies our businesses need, and UK companies in all sectors will then be able to find qualified, highly-motivated, work-ready young people who can fill vacancies and help their businesses grow. Only then can Britain hope to continue to punch above its weight in the world.
The skills that will prepare our young people for the future
But taking the long-term view in education isn't something that comes naturally to us. Given the many regularly published league tables, it's become de rigueur to focus on immediate concerns. Even though we all agree on the fundamental importance of equipping our young people with knowledge and skills that will hold them in good stead for the long-term, we get waylaid by firefighting, policy shifts and political priorities.
In fact, our current education system is failing to 'tool up' our young people with the skills they need to succeed in the world of work. Research conducted by Opinium for Young Enterprise last year found that 70 percent of employers in the UK struggled to find good quality applicants for entry-level jobs. After leaving school, many young people still lack the five key skills that are fundamental to a successful working life: the ability to communicate effectively; the ability to work in a team; resilience and the ability to pick yourself up after a knock-back; the capacity to think creatively and the capacity to solve problems. These are general work and life skills, that will prepare our young people for the future - whatever that future is - and they are best taught not out of a textbook, but by doing.
Thankfully politicians from all parties, teachers and employers have all recognised the fundamental importance of these skills. Labour MP Chi Onwurah said that the "five skills campaign is important because it speaks to the vital skills and attitudes all young people should be taught". Conservative MP Damian Hinds said that "every child needs to develop these vital skills to maximise their chances in life". And Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the NAHT, said that our education system should contain "academic rigour and broader capabilities like the five key skills".
Looking beyond the short-term political horizon
So, what's holding us back? It's obviously not recognition of the importance of these hands-on skills. I think, instead, it's our inability to see beyond the short-term political gain or headline advantage of some education policy. The Department for Education's (DfE) recent crackdown on what they perceived to be bogus, non-academic subjects is a case in point.
The DfE claimed that they'd "scrapped thousands of low-quality qualifications so that only the gold-standard, employer-valued courses remain". But these so-called low-quality qualifications refer in part to enterprise education. Enterprise education is not just about teaching young people business facts, figures and definition. It's about getting hands-on, practical experience at the start up phase of running a business: founding their own firm, opening a bank account, or participating in work experience. Personally, I don't think there's a better way to teach our young people skills such as creativity, problem solving and teamwork. At Young Enterprise, we believe in learning by doing. We encourage and empower young people to embrace new ways of learning and discover new ways of thinking about their futures. Enterprise and financial education are the vehicles by which the education and business communities can 'tool up' future generations and make them ready for working life.
Establishing a board on long-term education policy
What's the solution? How do we end the political jockeying and knee-jerk policies? I believe the solution is a long-term Education Policy Board; a board that would be tasked to sketch out what a successful education system looks like, an education system that prepares Britain for the future. Outside the political imperatives of firefighting, having to grab a headline or boost a set of results, the Board would be able to come to a rounded and rational conclusion about our long-term educational priorities and how they should be taught, regardless of yesterday's or tomorrow's headlines.
How would it function? It would be a good idea for it to report after the next General Election, so it doesn't become politicised. It should include representatives from across the political spectrum: the Board should contain representatives from all main UK political parties, so that it is clearly seen to be above party politics. It should also possibly be chaired by someone outside of the political arena entirely.
Finally, it should include representatives from all those industries, sectors and areas of life that intersect with education policy. Of course, there should be representatives from the DfE as the executive, but then have non-execs from the teaching profession and UK industry. There should also be representatives from other government departments, such as the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Work and Pensions,and the Department of Health. Why? Because it's these departments that have to pick up the bill when unskilled and disillusioned young people are unemployed or worse still, turn to crime, drink and drugs.
We need to make sure that our education system is preparing our young people for their futures. We should be proud of our current system, but that shouldn't stop us from improving on it; we must not ignore the areas in which it fails. We need to get beyond party politics and create a firm sustainable foundation for our society. That means taking a balanced and inclusive approach to education; it means taking a structured approach to education; it means taking the long-term view.