The last word: We don’t need no education

Posted on 8 Apr 2013

Debate over the national curriculum and drives to increase apprenticeship provision obfuscate a serious problem, finds Will Stirling; many young people are simply unemployable.

Will Stirling, Editorial Director at SayOne Media

It was poignant to listen to the debate on the BBC’s Question Time on March 21 about the new school curriculum proposed by education secretary Michael Gove.

The emotive debate centred on which subjects children should learn at school and oscillated entertainingly, leading to a waspish contretemps between Gove and Labour minister Emily Thornberry. Great television, but nobody on the panel or in the audience took the employer’s point of view about education.

Any education should be founded on fixed pillars of hard, commonly-used factual subjects, such as basic mathematical principles and grammatically correct English. As a child gets older, a subject can then evolve. But the cat fight over detail between Gove and Shadow Attorney General Thornberry was made all the more petty because neither attempted to approach the question; how must young people be equipped to be useful to companies, thereby supporting a competitive economy?

At a dinner for West Midlands’ manufacturers on March 20, I was impressed with the candour manufacturing leaders shared on the challenges that manufacturing faces – there is little bullshit in Birmingham. And perhaps the most blunt discussion of all was on the calibre of job applicants.

In the week following National Apprenticeship Week, it might have been easy to bask, content in the conviction that the UK’s apprenticeship recruitment drive is a runaway success. That UK plc is on track to fill the yawning skills gaps in engineering and manufacturing. Here are some home truths from the coal face of the Black Country.

One company that is involved in the automotive sector has abandoned its apprenticeship scheme altogether. Why? The training provider was providing candidates and so fulfilling the criteria to receive its funding. But the quality of people was so dreadful that the manufacturer ditched the scheme and returned to hiring graduates only. New recruits rarely turned up on time, some skipped entire days without leave. They were caught stealing factory property. The MD felt the training provider was doing the bare minimum to pocket the grant. “It was a bad experience and we will not return to that for a while,” he said.

Another company, which develops software for manufacturing applications, said poor calibre applicants were not restricted to apprentices. It advertised 10 grad vacancies and nine placements at 30 universities. Of the 1180 applications, just 45, or 3.8%, were of an adequate standard to interview.

Most had good, relevant degrees in mathematics, engineering and computer science, but came up short in key employability skills; aptitude, personal presentation, an understanding of business basics. To find one ideal recruit for a technical vacancy, only 45 interviews were granted from an on-site assessment of 140. The quality of candidates was just very low.

A day and venue was booked to interview the applicants. Of the 40 who were identified, not one turned up. Not a single person.

The most extraordinary tale, however, came from the managing director of a subcontract electronics company.

It worked with a local training provider to find candidates for three apprentice places. The provider found 40 candidates that met the criteria, a good number though admittedly the vacancy was for a basic apprenticeship to reach NVQ Level One and required no A Levels.

A day and venue was booked to interview the applicants. Of the 40 who were identified, not one turned up. Not a single person. The MD was staggered, both at the appalling result and at the wilful disregard for a job opportunity in a region with above average unemployment.

This is not a malaise unique to the West Midlands. I have heard low calibre apprenticeship and graduate stories told in Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow and elsewhere.

The UK apprenticeship drive, championed by Semta, the National Apprenticeship Service and others is commendable. But policy makers and senior people in education must also confront the bald truth that schools, and often parents, are not adequately preparing kids for the work place. We can debate whether children should learn history, Mandarin or CDT, but I would suggest schools be measured as much on practical employability metrics as Ofsted-defined academic grades if the UK is to actually sustain its manufacturing base.