Skilling Britain for the 21st Century

14 May 2013

Tom Franklin
Tom Franklin, Chief Executive of Think Global

Lord Kenneth Baker is somebody I associate with my youth. I went through secondary school and into college during the time he was Education Secretary, in the Cabinet of Margaret Thatcher. I remember his education reforms being introduced, which were hugely controversial in their time, but which – in different forms – are still part of the education landscape today. He introduced the national curriculum (which is, of course, currently undergoing the latest reform). He piloted grant-maintained schools (the precursors of today’s academies). He started student loans (long before student fees had been conceived, and in an era when for many the student loan still supplemented the student grant). I understand from teacher colleagues that another of his innovations, inset days (still sometimes referred to as ‘Baker Days’) are still taking place too in many schools, surely to the continued delight of students in having what seems like an extra day off school.

He was one of the main speakers at a Spectator conference I attended last week on ‘Skilling Britain for the 21st Century’, and I’m amazed by how much he has stayed focused on education during the 24 years since he was Education Secretary. In particular, he champions the University Technical Colleges, a network of schools aimed at 14-18 year olds, which focuses on technical, practical and vocational learning. The network of these schools is growing rapidly (they were started under the last Labour government, and are expanding under the current coalition one – currently 45 such schools exist or have been approved), and there was one thing in particular which struck me in what he said in promoting one of these school’s (the JCB Academy’s) achievements:

Every student who left the JCB Academy last summer had somewhere to go (either apprenticeships, further education, university education, or work). This is probably the best performance of any school in the country….I say ‘probably’ because other schools don’t really keep this information….Schools are not assessed on the employability of their students, only on exam results.

Bridging the Global Skills Gap - click to download PDFHe raises an interesting point about the way that performance of our schools is measured – with so much emphasis on exam grades alone. Yes, of course they are important, but what about employability, or life skills, or global skills? A young person might come out of school with a raft of GCSEs and A levels, yet be ill-equipped for life and work in our globalised world. This is something which both teachers and employers tell us at Think Global they are worried about. For example, in our latest Think Global report, Bridging the Global Skills Gap, based on a survey of 753 teachers, two in three teachers (64%) worry that young people’s horizons are not broad enough to operate in a globalised and multicultural economy and society. 85% of teachers say schools should prepare pupils for a fast changing and globalised world but just 16% say that the school system actually does this. That is a sharp drop from a 2009 poll when 58% responded positively to the same question.

I’d be interested to know what you think about the way that the performance of schools is measured. What other ways, in addition to exam results, should we measure schools’ success? Do you agree with the teachers in our survey who said that the school system isn’t preparing pupils for a globalised world? Should local and national employers be involved in helping shape schools’ curricula, and supporting schools by providing work experience?

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