Schools are churning out the unemployable

Eight million adults are ‘economically inactive’ — which means that one in five people of working age do not have a job

Harriet Sergeant
Published: 21 February 2010

The latest unemployment figures are a shocker. Eight million adults are “economically inactive”. That means one in five people of working age does not have a job. A new and expanding group, poignantly described as “discouraged” workers, have even given up looking.

They are right to be discouraged but wrong that there is no work. A report out on Friday points out that a fifth of firms and a quarter of employers in the state sector are still hiring – despite the recession. Except they are taking on migrant workers – not our home-grown “discouraged” variety.

The managing director of a medium-sized IT company explained why. High-flyers – Oxford and Cambridge graduates – are still as good as any in the world. His problems come when he tries to recruit middle management. Last year he interviewed 52 graduates – all educated in state schools. On paper they looked “brilliant students”. Each had three As at A-level and a 2:1 degree. He shook his head. “There’s a big difference between people passing exams and being ready for work.”

This was obvious even before the interview began. Of the 52 applicants, half arrived late. Only three of the 52 walked up to the managing director, looked him in the eye, shook his hand and said, “Good morning.” The rest “just ambled in”. When he asked them to solve a problem, only 12 had come equipped with a notebook and pencil.

The three who had greeted him proved the strongest candidates and he hired them. Within a year they were out because of their “lackadaisical” attitude. They did not turn up on time; for the first six months a manager had to check all their emails for spelling and grammar; they did not know how to learn. It was the first time they had ever been asked to learn on their own. Their ability to “engage in business” was “incredibly” disappointing and “at 5.30 on the dot they left the office”.

This year the managing director has joined the 20% of companies recruiting overseas. “We are an English company but we have no English staff. It’s just too much trouble,” he said.

It is the same story with employers at every level in the UK. Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco, put it bluntly. Too many children have been leaving school after 11 or 13 years of compulsory education “without the basic skills to get on in life and hold down a job”. He said 5m adults were functionally illiterate and 17m could not add up properly. “On-the-job training” cannot act as a “bandage or sticking plaster” for “the failure of our education system”.

A CBI survey revealed that literacy and numeracy were not the only problems. More than 50% of employers complained that young people were inarticulate, unable to communicate concisely, interpret written instructions or perform simple mental calculations.

This goes a long way to explain why, of the 1.7m jobs created since 1997, 81% have gone to foreign workers. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agrees with Leahy. UK citizens are on the dole because of “issues around basic employability skills, incentives and motivation”. It is a pity it has not passed that insight on to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The DWP has made it clear: work is where the inflated claims for our state education finally hit the buffers. At every stage we have a system in which the expediency of politicians and the ideology of the educational establishment take precedence over the interests of pupils.

We have children who can barely read and write scoring high marks in their Sats because it makes the school, and therefore politicians, look good. We have exam boards competing to offer the lowest pass mark because it allows heads to fulfil their GCSE targets. We have pupils pushed into easy subjects at A-level – which excludes them from applying to a top university – because it benefits the school. And we have universities that offer a 2:1 degree, as the IT company director put it, to “anyone who bothers to sit down and take the exam”.

On top of that is the attitude of the staff themselves. I was visiting schools to discover why so many black Caribbean and white working-class boys were failing. One reason soon became obvious. Their teachers, middle class themselves, failed to pass on those very values that had allowed them to progress in life.

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  • HARRIET SERGEANT

    HARRIET SERGEANT
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