This year I attended both the Conservative and Labour Party conferences in my capacity as Chief Executive of the charity Young Enterprise. It's now a couple of weeks since the conferences and I've had time to digest and reflect not only on what was achieved there but also where it was achieved. When you go to a conference it becomes apparent very quickly that the real business goes on around the fringe and I found the 'offline' conversations and connections very useful. In fact some seasoned veterans of the conference circuit told me that they had never been in to hear a political speech. All the most insightful, productive work goes on outside the main conference hall.
On Young Enterprise business, whether I was speaking with politicians, business folk or fellow charity colleagues, there is no doubt that everyone recognises the urgent need to equip young people with the skills they need to get and hold down a suitable job and to make them financially literate. Strong academic results alone are not the only route to success. What we need now is cohesive action from politicians, businesses and educators to realise and support the changes needed in schools, colleges and universities.
There was also formal business to carry out. I spoke on a few panels and was joined by friends from the CIPD, UK Youth, The Children's Society, Sir Hector Sants and MPs including Rushanara Ali, Mark Garnier, Justin Tomlinson, Robin Walker and Barry Sherman. Even 'online' there is firm agreement from all parties that the skills gap is real and needs addressing. Yes, having financial education on the curriculum is a positive step forward, but there is also a significant 'disconnect' with the fact that enterprise education was taken off the curriculum in 2012.
The important work done by Justin Tomlinson and Mark Garnier on the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for financial education is not over, in fact it is just beginning. We need to ensure that financial education is delivered in an engaging and interesting way to get teachers and students behind it. That's where Young Enterprise, now incorporating the Personal Finance Education Group (pfeg) comes in. We know that by linking financial education with our enterprise 'Learning by Doing' schemes, like Fiver, Tenner, and the Company Programme, we can show students first how to earn some money and then how to look after it. If they have worked their socks off to earn a couple of hundred pounds of their own money, we know that this hands-on experience will provide more 'skin in the game' than learning how to manage money out of a textbook.
It is crucial to have more joined-up, long-term thinking for us to make real progress in the skills and financial literacy arena. All sides and sectors agree that young people do not have the softer skills and attitudes that employers are screaming for - teamwork, communication, creativity, problem solving and resilience to name the five that Young Enterprise is focusing on. Yet everyone is promoting apprenticeships, for which they are fundamental. To make a real and lasting impact we need to go further and embed the teaching of these key skills across the education system, starting in primary schools as Lord Young's 'Enterprise For All' report recommends.
The conferences also made me think about how, no matter how capable and dedicated our political leaders are, even a 'dream team' of cross-party MPs wouldn't alone help young people get the high-quality enterprise education they need to create a prosperous future for themselves and the UK. Unlike many core subjects on the curriculum, teaching enterprise takes more than a blackboard, a textbook and a great teacher. Enterprise is a practical, hands-on subject. Yes, in the classroom you can teach children how businesses operate, about company structure, customers and profit, but to create the next generation of entrepreneurs and prepare young people for the world of work, they need to apply these skills to a real business. For that, we need business mentors, usually from the school's local community, to share their good and bad experiences with students and to bridge the 'scary' gap between education and employment. The buy-in and pro-active support of business leaders, schools and the local community is therefore the crucial active ingredient to political will.
If we get this mix working, together they could push forward the skills agenda and create an environment that embeds enterprise education within the system. Over one million Young Enterprise alumni have risen to the very top in all sectors from politics, banking and transport, engineering and technology, sports and the creative industries. We know the mix works. Yes, this is all highly aspirational but it is also highly doable. It also serves to remind us that politicians can never deliver all the answers. To deliver real lasting change we need to look beyond the traditional boundaries, learn from those who have built successful businesses and dare to think outside the box. 'Learning by Doing', indeed!