Is education failing our economy?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

In recent years, education debates have largely centred on disputes between teachers’ unions and the government. While teachers complain they are overworked and under resourced, ruling politicians – such as the former education minister Michael Gove – insist on the need for greater “academic rigour” in the classroom to ensure pupils can compete in the global marketplace.

Yet beyond the rhetoric, grave doubts remain over the education system’s competence. According to a recent study by the British Chambers of Commerce, two-thirds of companies believe secondary schools are failing to prepare pupils for the working world. At a Guardian Live/Discuss event held in Manchester Central Library four expert panellists debated for and against the motion: Education is failing our economy.

First to speak for the motion was Guardian Education writer Melissa Benn who told the audience that successive governments have refused to invest sufficient funds in careers advice and apprenticeships, thereby failing to harness the potential of poorer students.

Benn also criticised the national curriculum for being “overregulated” and “narrow”, comparing underperforming state schools to elite public schools which may owe their success to adopting the opposite approach: “Eton does everything I would like state schools to do. It leaves its pupils alone; it puts enormous emphasis on creativity, sport and drama, on all the things that develop self-confidence. If you look at how state education has developed we have gone in the opposite direction.”

Despite her contention that state education is failing our economy, Benn challenged the assumption that education ought to be run solely for economic benefit. Instead she insisted that education is valuable as an end in itself and that pupils should not be presented with a false choice between classes designed to get them a job, and traditional academic subjects:

“Why does one have to go down the route of Latin, History, Geography … or go down the route of hairdressing or construction?” she said. “Why not be a philosopher and do a bit of plumbing?”

Arguing alongside Benn, educationalist Debra Kidd spoke of a worrying disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and the outcome of their policies. Last year education secretary, Nicky Morgan, expressed her concerns that an overemphasis on the arts is holding back secondary school pupils from fulfilling their career potential.

However, according to Kidd this ignores the fact that the creative industries have grown at a faster rate than almost any other sector since the recession, suggesting that arts subjects have an important role to play in preparing pupils for the world of work: “Yes education is failing our economy. It’s failing it because it doesn’t value the very subjects that children need to succeed to go on in life,” she said.

Kidd added that the government’s strong emphasis on testing pupils’ abilities with endless exams is having a detrimental effect on the economy: “What all companies seem to be in agreement about is that what we need are creative, confident, risk takers. Children who are not afraid to make mistakes, who are prepared to pick themselves up when they do fail and carry on,” she said. “How on earth are we going to produce children of that capacity when we give them one shot at passing exams, when we move to a fully linear system where if you fail you are dumb

Arguing against the motion Alun Francis, chief executive of Oldham College, contended that while it is impossible to design an education system to perfectly match the needs of an ever changing economy, the shift towards a knowledge-based curriculum prioritising core academic subjects has helped equip pupils with some of the skills they need to compete in the labour market. “I think a knowledge-based curriculum is very important because powerful knowledge is the thing that allows people to live economically and politically much more free lives.”

Francis conceded that there was room for improvement in several areas, calling for more emphasis on vocational training within schools rather than just focusing on core academic subjects and agreeing with Kidd that school testing has gone too far: “Our system is overregulated, it manages performance not learning, it’s obsessed with league tables … the policy is part of the problem and we need a policy that is about learning not performance,” he argued.

Nick Brent, co-director of Tutor Trust, agreed there have been positive changes in recent years, highlighting a greater emphasis on numeracy and literacy in the curriculum as well as an increasing number of state school pupils going on to university. However, Brent diverged slightly from Francis when he praised the government’s focus on assessing academic performance – with regular Ofsted inspections and league tables – which he argued are important to ensure education standards remain high.

“It’s good that we have things like league tables. Having more rigour in the system is really important and a good thing and, frankly, before there was more rigour in the system it was failing a lot of kids and a lot of employers. But it was mainly failing poor kids and from a social justice perspective that is wrong.”

Brent insisted that schools which have embraced academic rigour often perform well, citing the example ofParry Beeches Academy, a Birmingham free school, where 94% of pupils achieved the government benchmark of 5 A*-C GCSEs last year.

“Some schools have shown that even in very tough urban areas with hundreds of kids from challenging backgrounds they can still get excellent education results.”

However, his faith in the system was challenged towards the end of the debate by a 15-year-old pupil whose firsthand account of school life drew warm applause from the audience.

“You can go to any class in this country and ask them an exam question and you will get the exact same answer from every single student,” she said, “We’re not learning we’re memorising our mark scheme … we don’t know things we memorise things.”

A poll at the end of the event confirmed that many in the audience sympathised with her experience, with a large majority voting to agree that education is failing our economy.