CBI: CBI calls for overhaul of school system to deliver for all
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CBI calls for overhaul of school system to deliver for all

The CBI is calling for a radical shake up of schools from nursery to sixth form to ensure all young people achieve their potential.

In a new report, the CBI warns the education system fosters a cult of the average; too often failing to stretch the most able or support those that need most help.

In full: First Steps report >>     
Infographic: A New Approach >>

This is because much of the 35 years of education reform has focused on narrow measures of performance, such as exams and league tables, which has allowed too many young people to fall behind.

'Businesses have traditionally focused on education at 14 plus, but it’s clear we need to tackle problems earlier, instead of applying a sticking plaster later on.'

- John Cridland

Despite spending more on education than many of our competitors, the UK has slipped down international league tables. In England alone, half of the poorest children fail to achieve the expected levels in reading, writing and maths at 11, and don’t catch up in secondary school - even though the bar is lower than for many of our competitors.[1] 

First steps: a new approach for our schools outlines measures to address this conveyor belt of low performance. They include: giving more freedom to teachers; moving the focus from league tables to delivering a more rounded education; a shift from GCSEs to make 18 the focus of secondary education; and introducing vocational A-levels with the same standing as traditional A-levels.

John Cridland, CBI Director-General, said:

“Getting the next generation on the escalator to achieve their potential is one of the most exciting challenges we face.

“Businesses have traditionally focused on education at 14 plus, but it’s clear we need to tackle problems earlier, instead of applying a sticking plaster later on.

“We have some great teachers and average grades are rising, but we’ve been kidding ourselves about overall standards. By teaching to the test, too many young people’s individual needs are not being met, and they are being failed by the system.

“Government reforms are heading in the right direction, but are not sufficient on their own and must go further and faster. As well as academic rigour, we need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want.” 

Between 2000 and 2009, the UK slipped from 4th to 16th in science, from 8th to 28th in maths and from 7th to 25th in reading in international league tables.

Raising educational attainment to the levels of the best in Europe could boost GDP by more than £8 trillion over the lifetime of a child born today, the equivalent of one percentage point a year on growth. Few other changes could make such a powerful difference to the long-term health of our economy.

The report looks at pre-school, primary and secondary school and has consulted businesses, teachers, school leaders and academics.

The CBI’s proposals for children of pre-school age

Research shows that children failing to achieve adequate standards in primary education disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is already a gap of one year in vocabulary by the time a child starts school, between those from the poorest households and middle-class families.

To address this issue the CBI is calling for:

  • The Government to target structured childcare provision in areas where educational performance is low, as this is one of the best ways to raise attainment
  • Raising the quality of pre-schools by aspiring to having at least one person with Qualified Teacher Status
  • The Government to look at tax support and childcare regulation, including shifting support to parents in the early years.

The CBI’s proposals for teaching and school governance

The report shows that schools which have more freedom, do better, so is calling on the Government to accelerate its drive to decentralise power to headteachers. Inspirational teaching is also more likely to be found in schools which have more control over lessons. For example, over the course of one year a good teacher can add eighteen months of learning to a student from a disadvantaged background, compared with six months for a less able teacher.

The CBI is calling for:

  • A shift away from exam league tables to new Ofsted reports which assess academic rigour and the broader behaviours and attitudes that young people need to get on in life
  • Every teacher to have greater freedom to tailor their teaching to cater for the needs of each child
  • Headteachers to be given full control of performance assessment, reward, improvement plans and where necessary dismissal – and support to use them effectively
  • A new commitment from business and community organisations to support schools by providing role models, advice and experience.

Commenting on the proposals, Mr Cridland said:

“The best teachers we’ve talked to are rebels against the system. They have had to break out of the straitjacket of the curriculum which has stopped them delivering the sort of education our young people need.

“We need to liberate all teachers to allow them to teach creative lessons which inspire enquiry and understanding, and cater for all abilities.”

The CBI’s proposals for primary school

The report identifies that children between the ages of seven and 12 – particularly those from poorer backgrounds – fall behind. Given the crucial importance of the formative years in the education system, the CBI is calling for:

  • An overhaul of the primary curriculum to be based on clearly-defined goals for literacy, numeracy, science and computer science that stretch students more broadly
  • A review of the school transfer age procedures to ensure that young people do not drift in the vital switch period from primary to secondary school
  • More specialist teachers, especially in science and computer science. 

The CBI’s proposals for exam reform

The Government is raising the education leaving age in England from 16 to 18. The majority of young people already stay on until that age, so the CBI argues for a shift from the current focus on GCSEs at 16 to make A-levels the main exam.

The CBI is calling for:

  • Strengthened A-Levels to be used alongside new gold standard vocational A-levels as the summative point of the education system at 18
  • Individual learning plans to 18 designed to deliver a high-quality education for every child
  • A move away from GCSEs to new assessments aimed at supporting student decision-making about subject choices and career paths. These could be undertaken at 14 or 16, including a mix of exams and regular assessment.

Mr Cridland added:

“This generation of young people are as streetwise as any, but sometimes in the education system we’re not always bottling that.

“In some cases secondary schools have become an exam factory. Qualifications are important, but we also need people who have self-discipline and serve customers well.”

The CBI report, First steps: a new approach for our schools, is being launched at the CBI Annual Conference on Monday 19 November in London.


[1] What can we learn from the English, mathematics and science curricula of high performing jurisdictions, Research Report Department for Education – RR178, February 2012

Download "CBI Education report" (3,620kb)

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