The employment conundrum

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Part of the role of schools is to prepare young people for the workplace, but this is only one part of the story argues Marion Gibbs.

Youth unemployment remains a challenge. Our chancellor may declare that he is committed to “full employment”, but there is no simple solution, not only of those leaving schools and colleges with very few qualifications, but also to the vast numbers of recent graduates who are unable to find suitable work.

Schools are expected to equip young people with the knowledge and skills needed to enable them to pursue meaningful careers, or at least to obtain a job which will allow them to support themselves. However, this is only one side of the equation. We in schools can do our best to educate our students and prepare them for the world of work, but there may not be jobs available for them. 

Moreover, it is hotly disputed as to whether those who gain the “good jobs” do so because of their own knowledge and skills or because of familial or other connections. 

We have heard much about the “knowledge economy” and we are urged to focus on equipping students with technological and higher level skills for the jobs of the future. However, we are not a society staffed by robots: the less attractive menial jobs involving personal care for the elderly and infirm, waiting at tables and the cleaning of streets or hospitals, for example, still need to be done. 

We still need people to deliver the post and stack shelves and these roles may well now be being undertaken by graduates while they wait to find something more relevant to their aspirations. Should we be preparing our less academic students for such roles or should we be content to rely on otherwise unemployed UK graduates or those from other countries to fill the gaps?

There is an inherent conundrum, too, related to access to the jobs which require higher order thinking and problem-solving skills. It appears from recent international data that there is a strong correlation between mathematical ability and problem-solving ability. It is certainly true that the more challenging problem-solving style questions are only to be found on the higher level GCSE or IGCSE mathematics papers. Problem-solving is inherent in A level physics and mathematics too, but only the best mathematicians study these courses. However, the recent initiative to introduce computer programming, by means of Raspberry Pi, is another attempt to imbed problem-solving more firmly into our curriculum.

The inspection criteria in the independent sector ask for specific judgements as to whether pupils can think independently and critically and whether they demonstrate creativity. Some right-wing commentators have denounced such things as soft skills which have no place in the curriculum. They want a clear focus on factual knowledge and, I imagine, understanding, and this is what is apparently to be tested in the new-style public examinations. 

However, equipping young people with skills and understanding which enable them to gain employment surely has a place too? This includes not just work experience, but also making sure that students are able to communicate well with people of all ages and backgrounds and that they have the basic social skills. 

Undertaking community service is an excellent way to develop young people and it is good to see that more national initiatives in this area. The “Challenge” project for year 11s not only involves them in outdoor activities, developing resilience, problem-solving and team-working, but also in designing and carrying out community projects.

Every school should encourage their students to get involved in this. Our young people not only need to have the knowledge and skills to become employable, but also the self-confidence and perseverance to keep trying until they obtain the job they want. We will doubtless try our best to juggle the not necessarily complementary challenges of preparing students for the new-style examinations and for the challenges of real-life. Meanwhile, the government will, apparently, be doing its best to make sure that the jobs are available. Utopia?

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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