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Raising ambition for all

16 November 2015

Education and skills featured throughout the CBI’s annual conference: from the opening speeches by the prime minister, CBI president and director-general to the last, very lively, debate of the day on how to deliver a better workforce for tomorrow.

“The great thing about education” CBI president Paul Drechsler said “is that everybody cares and has something to say.” This was demonstrated by panellists and delegates at the CBI’s annual conference, where education and skills was a theme running throughout the day.

Addressing the CBI conference for the first time secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan kicked off the “Raising Ambition for All” session by highlighting the need for a UK education system that equips young people to compete with their international peers. “The theme of today’s conference is global ambition” the education secretary began, “and it is absolutely right for our ambition to be global. Young people and businesses alike are competing with the best in the world.”

Morgan set out how recent reforms focused on driving up rigour, but also acknowledged exams are not enough for success – agreeing with the CBI that attitudes and behaviours are as important as grades. Emphasising the role for business in education, came with “a pitch” to CBI members for all to get involved in whatever way they could.

Building a better understanding

The debate emphasised the need for a better understanding between schools and business. A clear message was that firms needed to help teachers understand business and what it does, with Yeo Valley managing director Karl Tucker suggesting it would be helpful if there was a scheme offering teachers the chance to spend a week in business.

But knowledge must go both ways and businesses also need to get a better understanding of schools and how they work. Exploring the range of engagement opportunities for business and schools, Juergen Maier, UK chief executive at Siemens, talked about the “Curiosity Project” a scheme to visit primary schools to encourage kids’ interest in engineering and study science, technology, engineering and maths – and Siemens uses its apprentices to do this, to act as a better bridge between the two worlds.

Earlier in the day, Claire Williams, deputy team leader at Williams Racing also focused on engaging with pupils at every level – primary, secondary and tertiary – again to encourage the uptake of STEM subjects and inspire interest. “We need to develop the next generation of talent,” she said, adding that it was the only way to ensure continued innovation in a world-class sport.

And these practical examples need to be replicated across industry and education as these issues can’t just be solved through the curriculum, said Morgan. Responding to calls for business to be better represented on the curriculum, she added that if she added everything she was asked for teachers would be working until midnight.

Primary thinking

Williams was certainly not alone in her insistence that business engagement should begin in primary schools, rather than focusing on students’ last years at school.

The CBI’s outgoing director-general John Cridland called education the “Achilles heel” of the economy. “At its best, it’s world class, but too many 16 year olds leave school let down by the system. We need every business in this room to get involved in primary schools.”

Although one member of the audience expressed concern about what business could do at this level, the answer came back from Morgan that it didn’t have to be complicated: inspiration counted for a great deal. Tucker agreed that too few children got the inspiration they needed so that they even wanted to succeed.

Yeo Valley’s presence on the panel illustrated that companies of all sizes could make a difference in schools, whether through sponsoring academies, becoming governors (or supporting members of staff who were), or through careers advice.

As businesses were the experts on what’s required to get in and on in work, Morgan urged everyone in the room to get involved with the Careers & Enterprise Company – an employer-led organisation set up to inspire and prepare young people for the fast-changing world of work.

Those who can, support teachers

But despite being the lynchpin for reform, the country’s 450,000 teachers were too often left out of the education debate, said Miriam Gonzáles Durántez, partner at law firm Dechert LLP and founder of the Inspiring Women campaign. “The teachers are the ones who are going to make my children enthusiastic about learning,” she said.

She added that teachers should be treated more like company employees as motivating them effectively would lead to success.

Gonzáles Durántez also said too much of everyone’s time was wasted teaching pupils to pass exams, rather than focusing on learning – a criticism that was particularly pertinent when employers are starting to put less emphasis on results.

EY’s managing partner for talent, Maggie Stilwell, for example, spoke about how her company has now eliminated certain academic criteria for applicants to encourage social mobility and equal access. She claimed 10 per cent of candidates successfully coming through the first round of recruitment wouldn’t even have been seen before.

But getting people to apply for such jobs still takes inspiration and awareness of what career options there are and the different routes available to pursue them; returning the panel to the critical issue of careers advice.

Better vocational routes

Giving young people a range of options, particularly of high quality technical and vocational routes, is vital. In her speech, Morgan referenced businesses who are backing local education provision from BAE Systems sponsorship of an academy in Furness to Siemens’ backing of four University Technical Colleges. 

Maier echoed earlier comments that too much time was spent knocking the education system, but he admitted there were only “pockets of excellence”. He wanted to see more vocational routes to improve this.

In his speech, the prime minister reiterated the government’s intention to train an extra 3 million apprenticeships in the current parliament. But he also focused on the importance of flexibility between the different routes.

“We want to build an economy where you don’t go either one way with apprentices or the other way with university,” he said. “The apprenticeship system needs to remain flexible enough so that many people can go on and complete a degree while they are working in one of your businesses.”

He continued: “At the end of the day, we want to see fewer and fewer 18 year olds leaving school without taking either path. If we’re going to compete in a global economy, then we need to make sure our young people are more highly skilled and more highly trained than our competitors.”

But while he urged businesses to “play their part” and fund the new apprenticeship levy, Cameron also said he recognised that the levy would be a challenge for many businesses. The scale of this particular challenge was picked up on the stage by Dave Lewis, chief executive at Tesco.

Commenting on the wider retail industry, he emphasised the contribution the sector made in providing skills and development for a large portion of the active workforce. He said 42 per cent of 16 and 17 year olds worked in the sector, and it employed 15 per cent of all apprentices. Each year, it invested around £1,500 to train and develop each of those employed, he said. But he added that the introduction of the apprenticeship levy would wipe out Tesco’s entire training budget.

Despite of the clear challenges, the enthusiasm shown by those on the stage and in the room, demonstrated that education and skills remain a top priority for the whole business community – but there is more work to do in creating the system that set everyone up for success. What’s clear is this is a shared responsibility, as Morgan said, “together we can help to raise ambitions for young people and our country”.