Manufacturers need business skills not GCSEs

Posted on 23 Aug 2012

Today’s GCSE results saw a drop in A*-C grades for the first time in 24 years. Now it seems the old proverb ‘what goes up must come down’ applies to GCSE grades too.

GCSEs were introduced in 1988 and results have steadily increased each year, reaching an all-time high of 69.8% last year, before dropping 0.4% this year. The standard of the exam and today’s drop has prompted a debate as to the relevance of GCSEs and how schools could better spend their time teaching more practicable skills which would translate better into a business environment.

Tim Thomas, head of employment & skills policy at the manufacturers’ organisation EEF, said: “Employers often find that school leavers lack the numeracy and literacy skills they require, as well as wider employability and communication skills.”

Further education colleges often have to pick up the slack from schools by providing extra functional skills alongside their A level and BTEC courses.

Highbury College in Portsmouth has had to set up literacy and numeracy classes for all students, regardless of the course they are studying.

“Some students come to us with a poor standard of literacy and numeracy,” said Martin Porter, head of automotive, construction and engineering at the college. “We recognise that these skills are essential for employment. If a student didn’t get on well with maths and English at school, they have a second chance to improve and learn at college.”

It’s not just the lack of numeracy and literacy that is worrying. A poll of 6,000 people conducted by media research group Kantar showed a third of people felt that more vocational subjects should be offered instead of GCSEs, despite these vocational subjects receiving criticism from the government and employers as to their usability.

Mandy Pooler, director of communications at Kantar, said: “At a time when vocational qualifications are coming under fire, it’s particularly interesting to see the number of people who think these bring real weight at GCSE level.”

Michael Gove at Chantry High School
Education Secretary Michael Gove at Chantry High School

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced plans earlier this year to overhaul the GCSE system and return to the more rigorous O-level. Today’s fall in GCSE grades instigated Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, to slam Michael Gove for being ‘more concerned about pushing through his ideological agenda for education than what is actually fair for everyone.’

Speaking in reaction to the grade results, Ms Blower said: “Some of today’s students face more hurdles than previously. Coalition Government policies such as cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance and raising tuition fees ensures that continuing in education or training is just not financially feasible for many students.”

She continued: “We need to return to a position where those with suitable qualifications can go on past GCSEs regardless of their background. These are the changes that will make a difference to pupils not Government fiddling from the side lines with examinations”

Calls to the government to review the proposed GCSE reform have come from all angles and today has highlighted the need to focus more on the next generation to ensure that Britain can compete as a manufacturing force on a global scale.

Tim Thomas from the EEF, said: “Improvements in skills and attainment levels of our young people, who are the next engineers and designers, are vital if we are to avoid falling behind our international competitors. This will be key in a world where our global competitiveness will increasingly depend on a highly skilled and productive workforce.”

Employers and experts may be disheartened by today’s GCSE grade drop but this disappointing set of results will hopefully lead to the government addressing the lack of business skills that makes today’s youth so unattractive to potential employers.

According to the Trade Union Congress (TUC), young people looking for a job currently face the bleakest outlook since 1994 and this is something that a continual stream of 16-17 year olds fresh out of college, lacking fundamental skills such as time-keeping and team building, will only further damage in an increasingly tough jobs market.