If literacy and numeracy skills are not fit for business, what is business doing about it?


Why businesses cannot simply sit back and moan

Although the headline is taken from a recent story from Wales, every so often this sort of headline goes around and comes around again and again. I’m also not entirely sure that the new Gove-levels will be the silver bullet Coalition politicians hope it will be. Then there is the eternal row over the quality of teachers and teaching.

Education is inevitably political

You ask any parent what their priorities are, chances are health and education will be somewhere close to the top. Thus for any politician wanting to win votes, promising to protect delivery of such services is almost a given – hence delivery of these services and systems of accountability are an inevitable minefield. Perhaps that’s why today is the day I step into my first school governors meeting at my former primary school to see if it is for me. I have no idea what sort of difference I’ll be able to make, but there was something about the summer fair I attended this summer that told me something wasn’t quite right.

In one sense, education – like health, is too important to be left to the politicians alone. It’s also too important to simply moan at the politicians about what’s wrong and/or what needs to be done. We’ve also somehow ended up with some sort of strange adversarial relationship between parents, teachers, managers, politicians, employers and the media. At least that is the impression that I get. I can’t help but think that this adversarial relationship doesn’t really do anyone any favours in the long term.

Perhaps it has something to do with the structure of education systems – in particular at secondary schools. Is secondary education a silo within society, a silo that employers or further education institutions expect young children to be dropped in at the top and for young adults to shoot out of the silo at the bottom for them to deal with? If that is the case, is that model and mindset fit for purpose? (QTWTAIN).

Assuming the silo is there, how do we break it?

I’m going back 15-20 years here, back to my schooling days pre-internet. Now, a huge amount has changed since then in terms of teaching methods and resources. Back them it was faded text books and blackboards with chalk. Today it is digital video and interactive whiteboards. A plethora of new resources and methods from which to inspire young learners. But teachers cannot do it all alone – whether individually or as a profession.

That’s what I don’t like when I see comments such as those by the Chief Inspector of Schools about teachers having to ‘work harder‘ (even though the comments seemed to be based on the assumption that teachers are out of the school gates at 3pm – one where I don’t even know where to start). It both reinforces the adversarial nature of relationships while at the same time crystalises the assumption that if children leave school badly educated, it is somehow entirely the fault of the teacher. Now there will be cases where there are teachers who are performing to a standard that is letting down young people all over the country. Where that is the case you put in systems of support to try and improve their performance, and if that doesn’t work you are left with little choice but to dismiss them – just as you would in any other profession.

But some of the criticisms that are thrown towards teachers and their profession point to some structural issues – of which complaints about literacy and numeracy skills not being fit for business ranks as one. Now, you could say literacy is literacy and numeracy is numeracy, irrespective of who the person is or what they go onto do when they leave school. Well…it’s not as straight forward as that. As the charity National Numeracy explains, the definition for numeracy differs from field to field. This is important when it comes to skills for business.

Back in the mid-1990s, we had some chap from a small business who came in to do a short talk about business. For preparation, we were asked to write a speculative letter of introduction applying for a job. He said that all of the letters we had written to him would have ended up straight in the bin. Our English teacher in the room (who was soon to retire) was mortified. Everything we had been taught about how to write a letter was torn up in front of her eyes. Where you put the date, how you address the individuals, line spacing/new paragraphs between sentences – remember that even as late as the mid-1990s hand-written letters were the norm. I have no idea what she’d make of a world where I now get offers of work & requests to speak, through tweets on Twitter!

“Preparation for work” skills

I’ve used this phrase because I can’t think of anything better at the moment. It was this, along with what I think was a ‘young enterprise’ thing that began to make me realise that teachers didn’t know everything – despite my mindset at the time. The teachers weren’t really interested in what we were coming up with in terms of designs, but the business advisers that came in to work with us, were. Our little trio of varying sporting and academic abilities came up with the idea of a clip board with a little lamp on it for people to work in the field in dark conditions. We hadn’t seen anything like it before and made a prototype from some really rough materials and a bike light. I guess others had similar ideas, ran with them, patented them and made a small fortune in the years that followed.

My point is that I cannot recall a single session at school, college or university where we were prepared for the world of work, and the demands that a working environment entailed. This then begs the question: If we want our school children to have levels of literacy and numeracy fit for a business environment, do enough of our teachers have experience of the business world to teach to that standard in a meaningful and realistic manner? If not, what can and should be done about it?

Think about it from the perspective of the teacher who has taken the “school-college-university-PGCE-teacher” route into the profession – in particular a teacher that has been there for decades. How do you go about teaching the teachers about the changing demands of business? Is it something that can be taught at weekend training sessions? Is it something that can be taught on day-release or through e-learning? Is it something where teachers need sabbaticals or interchanges with people who work in business to swap roles for a year?

Is what we have too piecemeal?

Young enterprise, one-off talks, two weeks work experience…but is there any comprehensive structure and continuity with it? Again, my memory recalls that the teachers didn’t seem to know what to do with these things, and neither did the adults from businesses taking part, even though the latter seemed to quite enjoy not being in a ‘work-work’ environment but rather being challenged by a group of opinionated young people buzzing with energy.

For me it goes beyond business – not least because not everyone is cut out for running a business or working in the private sector. What I ponder about is going beyond the classroom to inspire young people. Hence the importance of school visits – not just to far flung places, but to local places where they can interact with adults other than teachers – such as this example with the civil service. For somewhere like Cambridge there is a huge amount of diversity and knowledge waiting to be tapped into as far as employers and careers are concerned. I’d like to think that the institutions can get together and do something positive and long-lasting for young people locally. Here’s looking at Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce and the likes of JCI Cambridge and Cambridge Network.

Putting this blogpost together reminded me of what happens when you unleash the creativity in children. Back in 2001, The Guardian ran a competition inviting children to design a school that they would like. Every politician should read this. How about The Guardian running the competition again?



One thought on “If literacy and numeracy skills are not fit for business, what is business doing about it?

  1. You’re right, of course: for one reason (the EU) or another (devolution to whoever) the Government is becoming successively more impotent about the things that it can change and so it desperately looks to the public sector to meddle with. :/ It’s only my opinion of course, but both the NHS and Education would be far better left in the hands of the professionals tasked to deliver it, rather than in the hands of those who have merely been the client.

    Mr. Gove’s hobbyhorse EBAC will do little for standards in education. In many ways it simply diminishes what’s there already. And in fact there are other, better models of education already out there, so little need for the non-expert to try to reinvent the wheel: the IBMYP/DP or the NZQA, for example. That’s not to say that educators shouldn’t keep trying to find better ways of doing their work, both in delivery and in assessment.

    What politicians don’t say is that actually, there’s the same spectrum of ability being educated as there ever was: people aren’t somehow getting smarter. That GCSE grades seemed to be improving was probably down to better (or more experience in) teaching and learning, and resources.

    But everyone’s an expert when it comes to education, aren’t they? And they all like t give teachers a good kicking for a perceived decline in standards. :/

    [An Educator and former Governor]

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