By Daniel Hunter

Businesses need to work with school and college heads to equip young people for the workplace and for life, CBI Director-General John Cridland said today (Friday).

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders, in London, he said matching educational attainment in Finland could add 1% growth a year to the UK economy.

He said education standards needed to be rigorous — but had to give students the “rounded and grounded” attitudes and skills employers needed.

He called for the focus of secondary education to shift from exams at 16 to 18 in the long-term — with a new gold-standard vocational exam at 18 to be on a par with A-levels.

And he committed businesses to working with schools to help every student achieve their full potential.

His speech comes after the CBI called for a radical shake up of the education system — from nurseries to sixth form in last November’s report, First Steps — A New Approach For Our Schools.

In his speech, Mr Cridland said:

On education driving economic growth

“With all eyes now on rebalancing our economy away from the debt driven years of consumption, toward a greater contribution from investment and trade, our nation’s key asset for a future of sustained growth is education. In our ever-increasingly volatile, hyper-connected and globalised world, the sort of education, skills, and training we provide needs to be decisive.

“If we raised our attainment level to somewhere even close to the levels achieved in Finland, we could add one percentage point a year on growth, over the lifetime of a child born today. That’s gold dust in our economy where growth has been flat over the past year, and the $64,000 question is — ‘how will Britain grow’?”.

On the purpose of education

He said:

“We need an education system which focuses on helping young people to be rigorous, rounded and grounded. That should be the litmus test of how successful our schools are.

“We spend more on education than many of our competitors, yet half of our poorest children don’t achieve expected levels at 11 in reading, writing and maths, and then don’t catch up in secondary school because they’re already too far behind.

“We need to state clearly the elements of a successful outcome for schools. A balance of core and enabling subjects, embracing the personal qualities and attributes which young people need. I think Michael Gove’s recent announcements on exam reform are an opportunity to build this.

On accountability

He said:

“The CBI is calling for a shift to new style Ofsted reports. Headline performance measures should, of course, assess the quality of teaching and the academic results of a school, but they can do more than that.”

On strengthening exams

“In modernising the pathways students take in their journey towards the world of work it makes sense — over time — to make exams at 18 the peak assessment point, with external assessment at 16 an important milestone towards that.

“Alongside traditional exams at 18, we should embrace new gold-standard vocational A-levels which would ensure that high-quality non-academic routes get the credit they deserve. Higher apprenticeships, which offer entry at 16, could also be fully aligned in this design.

“The CBI’s proposals would allow teachers more creativity, leave leaders freer to lead, and steer students to be more inquisitive, rounded and grounded people that businesses want to recruit.”