Current education policy, particularly the proposed reforms to level 3 qualifications, carries exhortations for employers to “jump into the driving seat” and “to put themselves at the heart of the system”. Such invitations are not new and have a long history – dating back well over a century. The rationale for employer engagement stems from a range of concerns about the alleged mismatch between what employers want from the outputs of education and what the education system provides. Of course, such crude demand and supply analysis fails to cover the complexity of issues surrounding the purposes of education itself, including not just its economic goals but wider philosophical, social and psychological aims.
However, if one of the aims of education is to provide young people with the knowledge, skills and behaviours necessary for them to flourish in life beyond school or college then entry to employment, in whatever form, is going to be an important goal. To what extent, therefore, should employers engage with education and for what purpose? What is their capacity and competence? Why is it that although phrases deployed within policy documents vary, the sentiments expressed not only remain unchanged, but are often presented as novel?
Different this time: one step forward or two steps back?
For those of us working in this area, it is dispiriting and frustrating to see regular reiterations of the same themes presented as if they were new and capable of providing the elixir to cure the alleged shortcomings of the education and training system. A particular concern is the apparent failure to take account of evaluation studies, some of them generously funded, of previous similar initiatives, dating as far back as The Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) – 1983-1991, and more recently the 14-19 Diplomas 2005-2010. The development of the new T level programmes, currently being introduced, bear many of the design features of the abandoned 14-19 Diplomas, some of which were commendable, others proved unworkable. It is unfortunate that lessons have not been learnt, or relevant research evidence not reviewed. Independent research and evaluation evidence is important because it can inform policy development and prevent the mistakes of past initiatives being repeated. It can give the lie to the notion of employer engagement as something novel and untested, but it can highlight what employers can and cannot reasonably be expected to contribute and to what effect. This is important when such engagement is on a voluntary basis and dependent upon a coalition of the willing. It is also important at a time when the very nature of employment itself, and all that it entails, is being called into question.
A short history of employer engagement. Once more round the buoy or set fair for a better voyage?
This paper provides a short history of employer engagement in education from medieval guilds to the recent T level proposals. It is offered in an attempt to draw out some of the purposes, continuities and discontinuities of employer engagement and its proposed benefits. It reviews the types of activity, which are many and varied, the motivations for engagement, and the challenges and opportunities presented. It reminds us that despite policy prescription the task is not straightforward and cannot guarantee an education and training system “that meets the need of employers”, let alone the needs of all the other stakeholders who have a legitimate interest in it. Employers do have a role to play but what is asked of them should be structured, straightforward, within their competence, realistic and relevant. This brief review of a century of employers’ engagement with the education system should provide an opportunity for reflection upon how best this can be achieved, for the benefit of all stakeholders, without recourse to well-worn policy rhetoric.