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The Big Essex Debate

28 June 2011


Schools in Essex are delivering what they have been asked to but young people need to get a job at the weekends to give them some work and life experience.

Leaders in business and education came together in the Council Chamber at Essex County Council on Thursday, 23 June to debate whether education is failing business in the county.

Hosted by the Essex branch of the Institute of Directors and chaired by Michael Large OBE, Chairman of the East of England Business Group, the issues discussed ranged from re-introducing competition and the ‘can do’ attitude into schools through, for example, sport to building bridges between education and business.

Speaking on behalf of the educators in Essex, Cllr Stephen Castle, Cabinet Member for Education and the 2012 Games, and Gary Sullivan, MD of Wilson James, focussed on the cultural changes in the 21st century which sees young people leaving secondary and higher education with little or no work experience or aspiration to work.  This is not the fault of the educators – they are delivering what has been asked of them, with continuous changes to the curriculum, the administration of schools, the framework of teaching and the school leaving age.

Target setting drives funding and headteachers have to run their establishments as businesses, encouraging their students to stay on for higher academic qualifications when perhaps they would benefit more from going out to work or studying for vocational qualifications.

Defending the motion that business is being failed by education, Geoff Morris, entrepreneur and business mentor, and Malcolm Johnston of Re-Formation Associates, called for greater ambition, aspirational objectives, engagement and team work from our young people.  “We are a culture of mediocrity where everyone gets a rosette” said Malcolm Johnston. “Our young people need to be told when they have failed or are not good enough.”

In the open discussion which followed, emphasis was placed on the need for business to give clarity to the list of skills it needs from its future young employees (reference was made in particular to the Sweyne Park School’s Employability for Life Charter).  Schools are clearly keen to engage in partnership with local businesses but there needs to be a common language so that everyone understands the challenges and the eventual outcomes.

It was cited that predicting skill needs of the future is impossible; for example the top 10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist six years ago.  However employers do want a good attitude, flexibility, eagerness to learn and a responsible outlook from young employees.

Other areas explored included the stigmas now attached to non-academic careers, for example manual labour, the lack of apparent competitive drive that used to come from sport within schools and the general feeling that was this more about attitude than the grades.

The Essex Apprenticeship Scheme was praised but concern was expressed that, out of the 59,000 business in Essex, only 2000 had taken on an apprentice.  Disappointment was expressed about the Government’s withdrawal of funding for work experience placements which, it was unanimously agreed, provided a major benefit to both the students and employers.  Many schools can now no longer afford to undertake the necessary checks required before placing a student in a placement.

In summing up, Cllr Castle advised that education needs to listen more to business but businesses need to engage with education and advise them of their needs.

In an anonymous vote, the motion was defeated, education was not failing business in Essex as it was doing what the Government wanted it to do. However, it was felt that there was too much focus on academia and not enough on some of the softer skills required. It was felt that through greater collaboration with businesses, many of these issues could be address, but the initiative must come from Education.

We must create an environment where it becomes easier for students to get work experience to gain essential life skills they need for the workplace.