From education to employment

The benefits of an enterprising education

Michael Mercieca is chief executive of Young Enterprise

If we are to believe the headlines the recent decline in unemployment is a triumph. The dole queues, we are told, are falling and that is a firm indication that the economy is on the mend.

Of course the improvement in the prosperity of Britain’s families is welcome. But there’s only one problem with this sunny scenario. The total number of young people out of work remains stubbornly high at very nearly a million, the highest level since records began in 1992.

This not just a “disappointing” statistic as some politicians are misguidedly prone to say. It is, in fact, one of the most insidious diseases affecting our society. The reason is that the longer a young person remains out of work the more severely their confidence plummets, the more disengaged they feel from society. Make no mistake, our society pays for this disengagement massively. Both in the short term as employers struggle to find employees with the skills needs to succeed in the workplace and in the longer term as young people become adults without the confidence to develop the skills to economically contribute to society. The cumulative impact of such long term disengagement will not become apparent for some time to come.
Now I am going to say something you may think you have heard too many times before: the solution to this must begin at school. But here’s something you won’t have heard quite as often – responsibility for providing the solution also equally lies in the boardroom.

Both education and business have a duty to make sure those leaving school get the skills, confidence and attitudes they need to succeed and excel in the workforce. No, this is not another moan about allegedly declining academic standards. The need for high achievement in the core curriculum is a given. You need exam passes to get a job, full stop. But in this age of ferocious change, economic adversity and incessant reorganisation it is emphatically not enough even for the A-star pupil.

You do not have to look far to find the evidence that the British education system is failing – but not in the way Cabinet Ministers seem to believe. The failure is not so much in providing education in abstract subjects. It is in a curiously deliberate, systematic refusal to empower young people while at school to take charge of projects themselves and thereby to discover their hidden talents, enthusiasm and creativity.

This is why so many employers – for example the leaders of the 240,000 companies who belong to the Confederation of British Industry, and the 200,000 in the Federation of Small Businesses – overwhelmingly complain that students are leaving the education system without being prepared properly for work. In a poll of UK chief executives by Opinium for Young Enterprise in 2013, 70% said they found it hard to find recruits of sufficient quality to fill entry-level posts.

Companies are rightly being told that it is vital for the future of the economy to employ young people. In principle, this generation have the best formal academic qualifications in history. But then when many companies invite young people for interview the potential new recruits often turn out not to be equipped for the jobs on offer. The problem was not that they couldn’t add up or parse a Latin sentence. What was missing was much more fundamental.
What British employers feel young recruits lacked most were absolutely essential to land a job: self-management, communication and literacy, people skills, a positive attitude, and confidence.

So what do we need to do differently and why?

Well, while our education system ranks as of the best in the world it often, say critics, focuses too much on teaching facts “at” young people and testing them. A growing body of evidence shows that what they need – to complement their academic training – is a chance to develop, apply, embed and hardwire the skills needed to make their way in the workplace.

They need the chance to “learn by doing” in ways that a purely academic curriculum cannot match. It makes no sense that our current overly academic curriculum fails to give student the chance to practice and develop their skills and attitudes in teamwork, communication, persistence and resilience. These are all qualities they need to survive and prosper at school, at work and in life.

Over 50 years Young Enterprise has developed programmes that to varying degrees plunge young people into the exciting and challenging position of setting up and running a business. At its most stretching our Company Programme enables them to create a real, trading profit-making enterprise for a year with an average of 56 hours’ help from a business volunteer. The experience is as life-changing for the mentor – and the mentor’s company – as it is for the student, the teacher and the school.

Does this “enterprise education” work? A recent European Commission Report looked at Manchester Academy, for example. Before they implemented the Young Enterprise programme the school had never achieved more than 50% A* to C grades in 5 or more GCSEs. Since taking on Young Enterprise this has risen to a staggering 84%.

Research shows the more closely connected education is to business in a country the lower youth unemployment tends to be as Germany demonstrates.

Michael Mercieca is chief executive of Young Enterprise, the national education charity founded in 1963 to forge links between schools and industry 

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