Time to take action on education

Paul Drechsler, Chairman and Chief Executive of Wates Group, and Chair of Business in the Community's Education Leadership Team, gives his response to the recent CBI Pearson survey report, Changing the Pace.

I read the recent report, Changing The Pace, with interest and I agree that a change in pace is badly needed. As chair of the BITC Education Leadership Team I have the opportunity to meet many enthusiastic and talented young people,and I am saddened that over half all employers covered by the CBI Pearson survey lack confidence that they will be able to get high-skilled workers in future. Companies are increasingly having to address the impact of this, with a 6% increase in firms offering employees basic remedial training bringing the number now doing so up to 48%.

We clearly have a problem. The number of young people who leave school without the requisite A*-C grade is unacceptably high. One in six young people are leaving school without sufficient literacy and numeracy skills and over one million young people are not in employment, education or training.  Many of these young people not only have poor levels of achievement but they also have low, if any, aspiration to succeed in life.

Social mobility in this country seems to be grinding to a halt. How can we say we live in a fair and representative society when only 7% of the country goes to private schools and yet 50% of the CEOs in the FTSE were privately educated? 

Complex and huge as the challenge is, businesses can make a big  difference to young people’s aspirations, attainment and lives. Not just because it is the right thing to do morally, but because the future success of UK plc depends upon it.

This is an issue of fundamental importance to our economy. Youth unemployment costs an estimated £4.7 billion. But there is an even greater impact on our global competitiveness. Young people are our prime resource for the future, and if young people are not fulfilling their potential at school or entering the labour market with the right skills, that poses a serious threat to the competitiveness of the UK in the long term.

The CBI survey says 39% of employers are struggling to recruit workers with the advanced, technical STEM skills they need – with 41% saying shortages will persist for the next three years. How can we innovate and create new business opportunities without such talent?

So what can businesses do? The answer is, a great deal. Business in the Community has created a practical model called Business Class: a strategic three year strategic partnership between a business and a school.  The company works with the school leadership team to help them raise attainment and improve in a range of aspects of school life. Participation has been proven to increase a young person’s employability by 40%.

Businesses can have huge impact is on helping young people develop employability skills, raising their aspirations but at the same time helping them develop realistic ideas about careers from people with real world experience. Participation in events organised through the programme, such as mock interview sessions or a careers events, can also be enormously enjoyable and useful for the adults involved.  Think of helping develop presentation and people skills in your existing employees, and inspiring the future generation of your staff in one fell swoop! 

We have created over 250 partnership organised into 32 local clusters where five to eight school and business partnerships work collaboratively and share best practice. We have been funded by the UK Commission for Employment and skills to expand this successful scheme to another 27 locations.  62% of our Business Class businesses would be more inclined to employ a school leaver as a result of involvement in the programme.

My own company, Wates, has eight partnerships across the country, and through those local clusters we work together and learn from other companies so that together we can increase the scale and impact of our efforts. I am very proud of Wates’ commitment and engagement in support of education through Business Class, and importantly, it contributes to higher employee engagement scores.

As well as becoming involved in Business Class, something every business can and should do to provide work experience placements. 55% of CBI employers say school leavers lack the right work experience and key attributes that set them up for success, including self-management (54%); problem solving (41%); and attitude to work (35%). But the crippling irony of that is UKCES tell us that only around 25% of companies offer work experience to school aged young people - so how are young people supposed to get that experience without companies opening their doors to local young people?

I absolutely believe that companies do want to help, provided they can do so efficently and effectively. The CBI say 85% of businesses already have a link of some kind with a school - BITC want to help businesses make those links as professional and as valuable as possible for both parties.

We will only make a real difference to young people if as companies we all reach out in a strategic way and work more collaboratively with common purpose: raise aspiration, raise attainment and so meet the business needs. That way everybody benefits, the school, the community, our employees and ultimately the nation.

In business we pride ourselves in winning, in overcoming obstacles and in the success of our employees. I am convinced that the UK business community has more than enough resources, skills and potential to make a much bigger impact by supporting schools and teachers in a more professional way. The key to success is to be effectively organised; Business Class provides the platform for that organisation.