As society and the labour market adapts to a post-Covid world, is the education system keeping up? To see if young people are being properly prepared for the future, Edge and Envision recently hosted an interactive seminar on the topic. Chaired by broadcaster and educational change advocate, Steph McGovern, we welcomed over 300 attendees and a panel of speakers from across the educational spectrum.
Olly Newton from Edge and Jo Clarke from Envision offered insights from inside the education system. Also bringing their expertise were Neil Weller MBE (Chair of the London Apprenticeship Ambassador Network); Kirsty Green-Mann (Head of Corporate Responsibility, Burges Salmon LLP); and Mark Smith (CEO and Founder of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills).
What skills are employers looking for?
We opened with a discussion about the 21st century skills that employers want. Unsurprisingly, broad skills like team-working, resilience and problem-solving were key themes.
“Flexibility and digital skills are increasingly important, too, especially as we move towards hybrid working,” said Kirsty, a major employer. Young people’s academic qualifications, she felt, are less important than the right attitude and a willingness to learn.
An advocate for apprenticeships, Neil concurred. “Young people’s resilience has helped us through the pandemic,” he said. “As long as they have a solid grounding, we can develop their skills through apprenticeships and training.”
Skills development: policy vs. implementation
While there are policy moves to tackle the issue of employability skills, such as the Gatsby benchmarks, the panel agreed that significant gaps remain. While young people and teachers see that employability skills are important, careers education is poorly resourced and not sufficiently embedded into the curriculum.
Despite some policy shifts in the right direction, systemic barriers like league tables and inspection frameworks aren’t conducive to developing these vital skills. Often, teachers also lack the knowledge required to guide students effectively in their careers.
Olly highlighted one example: “Policy says that all schools must now have a careers advisor. However, more often than not this becomes a busy teacher’s Wednesday afternoon task. Over 90% of teachers and parents want broader skills, so why not put real-world learning at the heart of the curriculum?”
The panel agreed that employer engagement must be integrated into education. But with the systemic barriers described…. How?
Employers and third parties must bridge the gap… for now
Until greater alignment emerges between policy and practice, helping schools manage employer engagement falls largely to entities like Edge and Envision, and employers with strong corporate responsibility, like Burges Salmon. Initiatives like Edge Future Learning and Envision’s Key Stage Four Programme can help. Meanwhile, Kirsty highlighted the importance of employers collaborating with other businesses, and partners like Envision, to boost community outreach.
From the training provider’s perspective, Mark shared one pragmatic solution that had been successful at Ada – work experience projects. “Three to five days a year, we run employer challenges in small student teams. Employers provide feedback. This allows regular, light-touch engagement without the logistical issues of full-time work experience. Employer engagement must be a steady drip. It’s more about culture than strategy.”
Vocational training vs. Higher Education
Another challenge was the idea that apprenticeships are less valuable than traditional degrees, a pervasive misconception bolstered by the media. But times are changing. “Apprenticeships are gaining kudos in sixth forms and FE colleges,” said Jo.
Neil wholeheartedly agreed: “My organisation is inundated by young people looking to integrate academic learning and technical training – our degree apprenticeships are oversubscribed. They’re cheaper than university and you can transition between careers later on.”
Olly also pointed out that we mustn’t be afraid to talk about values. Young people should be more than successful employees – they must be successful adults, too. Neil agreed, explaining that his apprentices currently mentor those coming up behind them. This develops leadership skills, kindness and a sense of community and giving back.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Reflections on the future struck a cautiously optimistic tone. Pre-pandemic, things were moving in the right direction, but now change is coming hard and fast. Kirsty said that businesses of all sizes must do their part – whether through apprenticeship programmes, light touch outreach or just advocacy work. Neil said that Covid has spurred employers to embrace opportunities to connect with young people digitally. And Mark felt that degree apprenticeships are an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional degrees.
These few insights from the discussion offer a taste of the current state of employability skills in England. Ultimately, a new dawn is upon us – it’s just a matter of how long it takes for policy to catch up. As Olly put it: “The momentum is unstoppable. Politicians now just have to get behind the change.”