By Jim Harvey, Communications Manager at Opinio Group Ltd

When unemployment figures are high, it seems that the worst affected are 16-24 year olds. The economic crisis has given us, amongst other things, the word NEET - young people Not in Education, Employment or Training — and it is they who have borne the brunt of the downturn. Labelling young people as anything is rarely positive so let us dispense with our pre-conceived ideas about youth and ask whether they are being served well enough by our education system to allow them to take their place in society.

UK PLC simply cannot afford to produce year upon year of school leavers that do little more than bolster the number of NEETS. Certainly, the idea of extending the age of compulsory schooling from 16 to 18 will, in theory at least, help impart some more skills into the fledgling workforce. Yet unless those two years, along with the several that precede them, are spent wisely, it will have little effect other than to fudge the figures.

So what do our young people need to learn at school, what do they actually learn and is there a major discrepancy?

I believe that there is. If you think back to the ‘plumber crisis’ of a decade or so ago, finding an adequately qualified plumber was like trying to find a needle in a septic tank. If and when you were lucky enough to wade through the mess and find one, laws of demand and supply meant that you were going to pay through the nose. Why was this the case? Firstly, there weren’t many kids coming home from school over the last twenty years saying, “I learnt how to solder an olive today Mum.” Secondly, this was in no small part down to the fact that plumbing was both unfashionable and harder to teach than how an oxbow lake is formed.

One only has to go back two or three generations to hear that its cohort was studying subjects like bookkeeping and typing at school. Our parents and grandparents might have been able to leave school at 14 and 15, but they were trained for the jobs that needed doing. But before we get all misty-eyed about the past, let us consider what challenges the employment market faces tomorrow. Previous generations could pretty much guarantee what jobs would be available. Nowadays technology has negated many traditional roles. UK PLC needs to train its workers for jobs that don’t exist yet, and for that it needs to undertake a root and branch upheaval of the education system. It needs to roll up its sleeves and get involved.

One of the reasons that plumbing became unfashionable is because young people are now expected to go to university. In 1950, 7% of 17 year olds in England and Wales were in full-time education. Sixty years later and that figure has gone up to 76% and over a third of all pupils go on to university, compared to just over 3% in 1950.¹ Whilst I accept that living away from home for three years is a rite of passage for many young people, I am inclined to ask whether or not they are actually being prepared for the workforce. Undergraduates at Staffordshire can take a course in David Beckham Studies, whilst Plymouth University is offering a BSc (Hons) in Surf Science and Technology.

So the question is; are you more equipped for the job market after three years at university, or would you be better served by working for a company for those three years and doing your ‘apprenticeship’ in-house? During periods of high unemployment, it would certainly be easier to defer for three years in the hope that you will become better qualified, even if it did mean running up a massive debt. Otherwise, I would suggest that there is little difference between the two individuals. The first might have the piece of paper, but the second has the experience, thanks to their in-house training.

The education system is not going to reform itself. Successive governments have applied sticking plasters to a gaping wound that actually requires surgery. This is where business can help. It is a positive step that the school leaving age is being extended to 18, but only if those two years are spent wisely. I’ve seen first-hand how many young people become disillusioned with school even by the age of eleven. Again, this is where business can help.

I would suggest that what is required is a baccalaureate system of secondary education where, at 14, young people choose whichever option best suits them. There will always be a place for those who wish to pursue an academic route, either in humanities or maths and science. However, there is also a place for more vocational pathways, where those who are not academic aren’t forced to suffer the humiliation of competing with those who are. Whilst keeping hold of the core skills of English and numeracy, there is plenty of scope to practically train youngsters, whether that happens to be in mechanics, engineering, design or customer service. We know little about what jobs we will require in the future, but we know enough and UK PLC would be foolish to assume that we will not need those who can write computer code and software apps or design and produce robots.

By investing in vocational training, business will reap the benefits of a workforce that can hit the ground running when it leaves education. Root and branch reform doesn’t come cheap. It is not something that this or any other shade of government is going to be able to implement without the support of the country and, more importantly, without major investment and the country will not be prepared to foot the bill by itself.

As it stands, our education is simply not fit for purpose. It is like everything else in life; you get out what you put in. At present we put pupils into a generic, wishy-washy programme of watered down subjects and out comes a generic, wishy-washy, watered down workforce, which can only serve to dilute the employment pool.