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Basic instincts

Autumn may not quite be here but the evening light is beginning to fade faster and the summer holidays are well and truly over. Over the past six weeks, school leavers and university graduates alike will have been doing their fair share of thinking.

For school leavers, some will be going on to further education at colleges and universities, worried about the new challenges ahead, still unsure in many cases what it is they want to do and worried that there will not be a job for them at the end of it all to pay off the debts they will have amassed. Others will already be looking for work and trying to find exactly what it is they want to be doing for the rest of their lives.

Graduates will also be looking for jobs and, like school leavers, they face the same fears over entering a new environment and taking up new challenges although the debt many will now be carrying will have added a new dimension to their worries.

But what is education all about? Why do we put our children through years of schooling and further education? What is it we are trying to give them and what is it that all should be leaving with in terms of basic skills?

Surely education is about equipping youngsters with the skills they will need in later life, the ability to think for themselves and the confidence to grow and develop further into the future. At its most basic level, education is about teaching people how to read, write and count effectively so they can communicate with others and be a part of the society in which we live.

By giving people these skills, we also give them the tools they will need to be self-sufficient and to be able to contribute and make a way for themselves in the future.

However, the problem seems to be that, increasingly, we are failing our children. Schools do not deliver the skills they need, nor in many cases do they seem to keep the children sufficiently engaged or stimulated to encourage them for the future. It is not possible to single out one particular party that is responsible for this and the Government, schools, teachers and parents must all accept their part in the problems we are facing with our education system.

More time and resource is certainly needed while support from families in trying to improve the plight of many children could only help. But what do commercial businesses make of it and how can they make a contribution?

A recent report on basic skills in the workforce, commissioned by the Department for Education, accuses schools of “mollycoddling” pupils, making it difficult for them to take responsibility for themselves once they get into the workplace.

The view from the business world seems to be that today’s youngsters are ill-prepared for the professional environment, have little idea of how to dress, conduct themselves or communicate and simply do not have the basic academic skills to do the job. Indeed, the Confederation of British Industry said a third of UK firms had run remedial courses last year which it believed to be “a sad indictment of how the education system has let young people down”.

Businesses in the survey complained that many school leavers were unable to produce adequate written work and struggled with basic numeracy. The very fact that there remains a stigma in not being able to read or write to a high standard shows that those struggling with these skills realise they should have mastered them long ago, and points to real problems in the classroom where the message of how important this level of learning is, is simply not getting across.

Indeed, to get round that stigma, many firms said they had to run basic literacy and numeracy courses under alternative titles such as computing to encourage staff to participate.

This is not a role that the commercial market should have to fulfill and the emphasis must be put on the Government to deliver the kind of education system that delivers what it is children need. There has been too much of a focus on making education all-inclusive and we have lost the standards that were previously in place.

Getting people into schools, colleges and universities has been the focus rather than the substance of what and how they are studying. Clearly, a mixture between the two is all-important but perhaps the schools should concentrate on the basics and let businesses provide teaching and training in the commercial competencies that staff need once they become employees.

The likes of accountancy, media studies and business studies have all been derided as effective A-level subjects by some of the finest universities in the country despite their popularity in recent years. These learning institutions are demanding a return to core subjects and learning for pupils. These skills can all be taught in the workplace once students have mastered the basics of reading, writing and numeracy and developed their knowledge in other subjects.

Once people have found an area they would like to work in, then it is important to give them the specific skills they need to succeed. That is why apprenticeships are so successful. They deliver the type of training that is needed for the environment they are working in and open the door for further opportunities in that area. The same is true of professional training and certainly this is the case in the financial advice market.

Once trainee advisers know this is where they want to be, then the key is to give them the type of education that will provide the bedrock of knowledge they need and the skills to develop into the future.

For firms, it is imperative that the training programmes they have in place actually meet the needs of their staff and make a difference to them and the jobs they are doing. Otherwise they are no better than the much maligned education system and are similarly failing their employees and wasting their money.

Given the raft of exams and training available, it is possible to design programmes to fit every need and firms serious about the future should be taking advantage of this in the present.

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