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So sang Coldplay but when it comes to key employment skills, they may have a point. Every 4 years, the much respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation an d Development (OECD) carries out a series of global tests in maths, science and reading/writing for pupils across the developed world.

In the latest tests, carried out recently, an average of 4% of pupils in all countries were classified as “academic all-rounders” having gained top marks in all 3 disciplines. The good news is that in the UK, the average was 4.6%. placing us just above the international average. The bad news, is that we were significantly behind many countries in the Far East such as Singapore (12.3%), and Japan and Hong Kong (8.4%). In parts of China the figure was nearly 15% and interestingly in Finland, with its fascinating exam-free education system, the figure was 8.4%.

20 years ago these figures would have been of interest but arguably little value. However, today we operate in a global economy and the competition for skills is as fierce as the competition for business. Nothing could demonstrate this issue more clearly than the situation at Dysons. Sir James Dyson is arguably one of our most successful entrepreneurs. His company have just issued another excellent set of results with both revenue and profits up by nearly 20% and if the reaction of my wife is anything to go by, his new hand-held cleaner is going to sell like hot cakes.

As a result, Dysons are looking to recruit more engineers, split between their UK headquarters and their plants in Malaysia and Singapore. Sir James reckons he’ll have no problem recruiting in the Far East, but will struggle to find the 300 people he needs in the UK. Even more worrying is the fact that he says he has the technology and ideas that would enable him to recruit a further 2000 people in the UK if he could only find people with the relevant skills.

Time For Action – Not Just Words

So what are we doing to address this crisis? Well, the government will point to changes in the curriculum, more robust examinations and a focus on basic skills but I am not convinced that this will have the impact they are hoping for. We are in serious danger of relying upon “exams” as the sole measure of performance rather than a useful indicator of progress. The Council for Science and Technology, which provides strategic advice to the government, have recently warned that practical experiments in science are being dropped in favour of concentrating on exam preparation. As the council says, this would be like “studying literature without reading books”.

At the same time, the government is proposing to publish “earnings tables” which will rank future earning potential against different subjects. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see this working either. Whilst teenagers may be concerned about their future job prospects, I don’t believe they lie awake at night pondering whether they will earn more by studying Maths instead of French. I became a scientist not because I thought it would make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, but because I had great teachers in the subjects, enjoyed experiments and most importantly, my mates were all doing the same subjects.

Do We Need To Re-engineer Our Approach to Skills?

So what should we being doing? Clearly the basic building blocks of English and Maths have to be in place and few people would disagree that pupils should continue to study these subjects if they fail to achieve a decent GCSE grade first time round. However, for whatever reason, these young people are likely to have had a negative experience of English and Maths and probably see themselves as failures at least in these subjects. Simply subjecting them to more of the same is unlikely to have any impact. As an old mentor of mine used to say – “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. Unless we radically rethink the learning experience, we will be in danger of producing failing 17 year-olds rather than failing 16 year-olds.

So we need to find new ways of encouraging young people to engage with these subjects. That means using technology such as mobile which they are familiar and delivering the learning in an innovative way which provides understanding rather than simply knowledge and which relates the subjects to the workplace in which young people will hopefully be working.

I believe that Functional Skills could be the answer. Not surprising you might say from a company which specialises in this area, but the pressure for Functional Skills is not coming from training providers, it is being led by employers who see the qualification as being far more relevant to the workplace and therefore of more value than the academically focused GCSEs.

Whatever steps we are going to take to address the skills crisis that prevents one of our best entrepreneurs from recruiting more UK staff, we have to act now. Tweaking the exam system and publishing “earnings tables” isn’t going to solve the problem. We need a fundamental rethink of the way we develop a workforce with the appropriate skills if we are genuinely going to compete against the world.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills gf

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Nick Linford and his colleagues at the excellent FEWeek appear to have uncovered a rather worrying trend in relation to pre-requirements for some Apprenticeship programmes being offered by some FE colleges and private training providers (PTPs). Specifically, candidates for certain frameworks are required to have a GCSE Grade A-C in English (and sometimes Maths as well) before being considered for a place on an Apprenticeship programme.

Of course one could argue that as Apprenticeships become more widely accepted as a genuine alternative to an academic University education , then supply and demand will dictate the level of pre-entry qualifications and that the best FE institutions will, like their counterparts in the HE sector, only offer places to the best qualified students.

That may well be the case, but one of the colleges demanding GCSE A-C grades as pre-qualification is a Midlands college, which is still reeling from a disastrous Ofsted Inspection a few months ago which classified their Apprenticeship programme as “inadequate”. So why would such a provider suddenly feel they could attract only the best-qualified candidates and could ignore the 400,000 young people without these qualifications?

I suspect that the answer may sadly be related to Functional Skills (FS) which are now a compulsory component of all Apprenticeship frameworks. However, students who already hold a Grade A-C in the relevant subject (English or Maths) are exempt from the Functional Skills equivalent.

Whilst the introduction of FS into Apprenticeships was a controversial move, most experts in the field now agree that it has significantly raised the value of the programme and unlike its Key Skills predecessor, it is giving students a proper foundation in these basic skills together with a genuine understanding as to how these skills can be effectively used in the workplace. However, equally it is a far more challenging course to deliver than Key Skills and requires significant amounts of contact time with a properly qualified tutor. Whilst funding levels have increased, it is still a labour-intensive delivery programme and therefore certainly not the most profitable component of the Apprenticeship programme.

And thereby, I believe, lies the problem. Many providers have struggled to deliver FS effectively for a variety of reasons, not least their failure to invest in properly qualified staff and innovative delivery methods. By recruiting learners who have GCSE A-C grades, they no longer need to deliver FS and can focus on the more profitable and easier to deliver components of the Apprenticeship framework.

What Are The Consequences?

If this trend continues, there are two consequences. Firstly, almost half of the current 1 million GREETs (Getting Ready for Education, Employment and Training) will be excluded from directly applying for Apprenticeships. That seems grossly unfair and a betrayal of the principles of Apprenticeships which were about offering an alternative career opportunity and a second chance for young people without a portfolio of GCSEs

Secondly, our experience having delivered FS successfully in many large corporate businesses, is that employers much prefer this qualification to the equivalent GCSEs. The latter are academic qualifications which are taught in a way that is designed to get students through an exam (sadly because that seems to be the key way in which we measure school performance). Functional Skills, on the other hand enable learners to apply their knowledge to a variety of real workplace situations and to understand how they can adapt it to new situations which they might meet in the future. As such it is far more relevant as a real vocational qualification and of far more value both to the learner and the employee.

I passionately believe that Apprenticeships should remain open to as many people as possible, no matter what their existing qualifications. We have proved consistently that it is possible to successfully train learners to achieve a Level 2 in FS (equivalent to GCSE A-C grade) and we have seen those same learners progress further within their companies. It would be a real tragedy if that opportunity was lost to them.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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