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An education system no longer fit for purpose?

perfect-employeeOur education system should prepare our young for the world ahead. It should equip them with the knowledge and skills that they need – not just to survive, but to make the most of their opportunities. So why is that so many employers bemoan the employability skills of our school leavers and graduates?

The answer lies in our curriculum, which has not kept pace with changes in technology. Academic knowledge and subject matter expertise are valued more highly than skills. This is not to take away from recent initiatives to increase vocational skills in some schools, but academic higher education is still widely promoted as the pinnacle of learning to the extent that around half of the UK’s school leavers now go to University.

Historically knowledge has been a precious commodity and evidence of it was valued by employers. A degree was your passport to a good job. But this has been turned upside down by the rapid growth of the internet making most knowledge ubiquitous. Today almost everything can be googled and furthermore it’s free. With the exception of some highly technical subjects there is virtually no need to get knowledge from a teacher or enter a university lecture hall.

Alongside this seismic shift in accessing knowledge, we are witnessing increased automation across all aspects of life. The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are transforming not just traditional blue collar work, but also many office based functions. Traditional jobs are disappearing and although new ones are being created, the concept of a job for life has disappeared altogether.

In response our education system and its core curriculum has changed very little. Instead we have become fixated with ever greater testing of students. League tables pre-occupy all schools and most continue to push university as the ultimate post school destination. It feels sometimes as if we are trying to show that our kids are getting smarter and with their better grades they will magically be able to cope with everything that is put in front of them.

Pursuit of knowledge should be encouraged, but it needs a radical re-think if that knowledge is no longer giving businesses what they need. In looking at what is missing, employers highlight a number of core deficiencies. At the bottom end there is a weakness with numeracy and literacy skills. At the top end, school leavers and graduates lack essential soft skills and are short of meaningful work experience.

All of this points to a much greater focus on skills and less emphasis on knowledge. What we need is to develop and nurture the essential skills that successful businesses demand. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity skills are way more useful than a suitcase full of A* grades and degrees. Put simply it’s no longer what you know, its what you do with what you know. And just as we have refined our ways of assessing academic knowledge, we have to find a way to better evidence these critical soft skills.

Addressing such a fundamental realignment cannot simply be left to those in education. Heads and teachers are already stretched and trying to juggle the latest requirements from a merry go round of educational policy makers. It’s as much the duty of employers to engage in helping to shape a new curriculum. They have to help inspire and influence young people and together we must uncover greater training and development initiatives to bridge the skills gap between education and the workplace. Only then will we have an education system that is fit for purpose.