Education and skills crises: they’ll always be with us

Long before David Cameron was being measured for his Bullingdon Club outfit, I spent some not-so-quality time invigilating GCSE exams. At the end of one such session, I collected the essay-type answer sheets and couldn’t help but notice that one pupil had filled in just one line -his name.On closer examination, I saw thathe’d misspelled it. It wasan English test,and he was one of many pupils compelled to take exams he had no hope of passing.

I remarked to a colleague that it really was quite an achievement to spend 11 years behind a desk in the English school system and come out of it unable to spell your own name. “Don’t worry,” he replied.”I’m sure he’ll find his way in the world.”

He was right, of course. The economy is very forgiving of those who flunk school and acquire few skills: it generates millions of unskilled and low-skilled jobs.

I’m often reminded of this seldom-mentioned fact when I read or hear the yawningly regular items in the media about the UK’s skills crisis, its education crisis, its literacy crisis and its crisis crisis. Last month, CBI director-general Richard Lambert, commenting on government plans to raise the school leaving age to 18, said “nearly half of all businesses are dissatisfied with school leavers’ literacy, numeracy and employability skills.”

The reverse is that mostbusinesses are satisfied with, or not botheredabout, school leavers’ progress in the three Rs.

I suspect that given the nature of survey questions that this polarity of views will be pretty much constant, and that significant numbers of businesses will continue to believe that levels of attainment in schools are on an irreversibly downhill slope. Suchviews ignore some of the hard facts of education spending and attainment.

In his latest Budget, Gordon Browntrumpeted that education spend in England would rise to £74bn by 2011. In 1997, when Labour triumphed in the polls, spending on education in England was just £29bn. This year it is £60bn.

Also under Blair, the percentage of 18-year-olds going into higher education is now more than 40% compared to about 5% in the early 1970s. A-level pass rates last year were more than96%. The government is also pumping money into apprenticeships and completion rates are rising.The quality of outcomes may be doubted, but the investment can’t.

Perhaps the real issue is that many expect the state to churn out pupils with the minimum A to Cgrades in core subjects. It won’t happen. It requires a set of circumstances and qualities – personal drive, for example – that the state can’t control.

In any case, the economy does provide for the so-called educational failures, especially if they have drive. Which takes me back to my semi-literate pupil.He found his way in the world through pugilism, and became a British boxing champion.

The e-learning mystery

The 2007 CIPD Learning, Training and Development Survey makes fascinating reading -especially in one regard: e-learning.

This much-trumpeted medium is, according to respondents, just about the least effective way to learn. Yet when asked which L&D activities were likely to rise over the next few years, 67% of the training and HR managers polled said e-learning. Why so, given that barely 2% of respondents thought it was an effective learning medium?

Because it is the answer to atraining prayer. All manner of knowledge can be piped to employees’ desktops at attractive rates per head.Then, for the most part, they can get on with it at their own pace, which,if it’s supposed to be done at home, will likely be as worthwhile as a Bible shop in Tehran -asjust 1% of respondents said self-study was the most effective way to learn.

John Charlton, editor and training manager

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