The curriculum vs employability skills?

Written by: Phil Crompton | Published:
Phil Crompton, executive head, The Trent Academies Group
Your article has really spurred me on to set up my Young Voices project that is set up to teach ...

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The curriculum is hampering schools’ efforts to improve and develop the employability skills of their young people, argues Phil Crompton

Everyone spends at least 11 years at school. That’s a long time. So surely it is not unreasonable to expect young people emerging from the education system to be ready to make a positive contribution to the working world?

I am not talking about examination results. They are just one indicator of someone’s capacity to be a great employee, or even an employer. I am talking about the skills that actually matter in the workplace.

Shouldn’t pupils in our schools be given the chance to develop skills in communicating with confidence, working in teams, bouncing back from failure, being polite, and organising themselves. And once they have developed the skills fully shouldn’t some recognition be available? Employers certainly think so. And so do I.

Having been a headteacher for 16 years and a teacher for 34, I have battled to ensure pupils pass GCSE and A level examinations. It is a hard grind at times. And no matter how effective schools are in maximising the number of passes, it is never enough as we always know that other qualities are what will really set young people up for successful working lives.

The trouble is that developing these qualities is something we just fit in, and we are never judged upon how well we do it. If team-building is a strength of a school it will be ignored by those who inspect – while success at mathematics GCSE will be praised. Walking expeditions in the Welsh hills might be noted but will not be valued if your history GCSE results aren’t high. For me the inescapable conclusion is that the curriculum is not fit-for-purpose – when was it?

Since I started teaching in 1982 it feels as if there’s been a thousand changes. Back then, work scrutiny was unheard of, O levels and CSEs were passed or failed, a lesson observation was a rarity and members of support staff few.

Now we live in a world of Ofsted, league tables, subject reviews, cover supervisors, teaching assistants, consultants and ICT technicians. So much has changed and, yet, we still teach the same subjects – geography, history, science, maths, English literature, English language, design technology, art. Computer studies and health and social care have made an appearance but for the most part we are still stuck in the same old curriculum strait-jacket.

The history of medicine, Romeo and Juliet, meanders and quadratic equations all make regular appearances in classrooms across the country. And pupils still ask: “Why are we doing this sir? When will this be needed at work? What is the point?”

We hear from the Confederation of British Industry that young people lack the skills and qualities that matter in the world of work. They aren’t resilient enough, they can’t work in teams, they don’t show enough initiative, they lack tenacity and the ability to critically analyse.

Yet employability is right at the heart of why people send their children to school. How bizarre then that we have such a huge school-employer mismatch. Might a better world involve a national curriculum that leads to qualifications in Planning a Project, How organisations work, Running a business, or Bouncing back from set backs?

At my three schools, we recognise the existing curriculum isn’t going away and that exams have to be passed, but we are working with local businesses to breathe life into some of the duller parts of the curriculum and to equip our pupils for working life.

Science classes are advising a housing company on how to promote their new eco-homes, German and French students are producing foreign language leaflets for visitors to a local hotel, computing students have worked with an IT firm to create mobile phone apps, A level students have been practising Spanish conversation at a city tapas bar, and a professional actress has worked with a drama class.

Our aim is to get every faculty pairing up with a different local company. But I still wonder if we are doing enough.

A recent research report from the Sutton Trust found that the vast majority of leaders in key areas are privately educated. This is not a reflection of the abilities of the 93 per cent of the population who attend state schools. Somehow the private sector produces young people with the confidence to persuade employers that they are great assets.

The government appears sure that what makes the difference is the “rigorous curriculum”. In my view it isn’t – connections and networking are much more significant. However, we have to live with it for the time being and continue to engage fully with employers, make the curriculum as relevant as possible and plan the party we will hold on the day that Eton starts to teach a GCSE in Bouncing Back.

  • Phil Crompton is the executive head of The Trent Academies Group. Follow on Twitter @ptc23 and @trentacadgroup

Your article has really spurred me on to set up my Young Voices project that is set up to teach Speaking Confidently to young people. The insight you shared on the conflict between Curriculum results and Employability skills priorities is the bedrock of the thought process behind the effort. We are looking to offer that skill that the school curriculum can not prioritise.

Thank you very much for your insight.

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