Are graduates making the grade?

The
record breaking A-level results announced last week provoked the annual debate
over ‘dumbing down’ among politicians and teachers.
But what do they mean for employers? Daniel Thomas investigates

Rising
numbers of students getting top grades at A-level mean employers are being
forced to think more carefully about how they differentiate between candidates,
according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“Our
research shows that the main reasons for difficulties recruiting are a lack of
suitably skilled and experienced candidates,” said Rebecca Clake,
organisation and resourcing adviser at the CIPD.

“It
is, therefore, more important than ever for employers to set very clear job specifications
that highlight what they really need. Exam results alone have never done this,
and cannot hope to do so,” she said.

Schools
minister David Miliband admitted last week that
employers and universities need more information to select the highest achievers,
although he stressed that did not mean down-grading the results of other
successful candidates.

The
Institute
of Directors
(IoD) said it would welcome a restructuring of the
grading system for A-levels, although it said there was no need to replace them
with a diploma, as advocated by Mike Tomlinson’s Committee on Educational
Reform.

The
IoD suggested altering the examination to ensure that
a smaller proportion of students achieve an ‘A’ grade, ensuring that passes at
grades B and C continue to command respect.

However,
while they are interested in taking part in the debate, claims of employer
concern over exam grade inflation are “wildly overdone”, according to the CBI
employers’ group

“It
is not true that thousands of employers are fretting about differentiating
between the brightest students,” said CBI director general, Digby
Jones.

“They
are more worried by the real education scandal, which is the number of students
who come out of the system totally unprepared for today’s world of work. There are
simply too many young people who cannot read or write and do not understand the
business world they are about to go into,” he said.

The
British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), for its part, said more A-level students
should be encouraged to take vocational qualifications.

It
pointed to the latest BCC economic survey of more than 6,000 businesses, which
shows that over the past 10 years, the number of employers having difficulty
finding people with the right skills has doubled.

“We
wish A-level students the best of luck with their results, but it is important
that students, including the brightest, consider all options available to them,
and not simply head straight to university,” said Bill Midgley,
president of the BCC.

Students
looking at their career options need to know that they can earn high salaries
by getting vocational qualifications and not going to university, he added.

However,
the Government’s target for getting 50 per cent of all qualified students into
university is intended to focus on vocational courses, according to Val
Butcher, senior adviser for employability at skills body, the Higher
Education Academy.

“Universities
cannot meet the increased target through academic courses – they will have to
be vocational, particularly foundation degrees,” she said. “Organisations
should plan strategies to see how these students will fit within their
business.”

The
academy has called on the Government to introduce tax breaks for employers to
allow work experience placements and for universities to employ dedicated staff
to prepare students for placements.

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