Official Report: 17 May 2001




Confederation of British Industry

Thursday 17 May 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mr S Wilson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Gibson
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh

Mr N Smyth
Mr P Masterson Confederation of British Industry
Mr J Cooley
Mr J Owen

The Chairperson:

We welcome to the Committee for Education representatives from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), here to give their views on the review of post-primary education.

Mr Masterson:

The CBI represents the corporate sector and business community in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Our interest is ensuring that conditions are created - both here and in Great Britain - where business, and therefore the community, can prosper. Those present today take a close interest in educational matters.

From our perspective, education is vital to our future economic prosperity and success. We rely on the output of the system to help us prosper, and we are pleased to appear before the Committee regarding this important review. Mr Smyth, director of the CBI, will give a short presentation.

Mr Smyth:

I shall draw out the key points from our written submission, covering the scope of the review, the importance we attach to developing a consensus on the outcome of education and the importance of addressing the weaknesses in the current system.

I shall also outline our views on the way forward, highlight the importance we attach to increasing standards overall, acknowledge that we must work within the realities of the current system and make some concluding remarks. The submission as a whole focuses on what business seeks from education. Our strength lies in putting our views - both to the Committee and in the submission we made to the review body.

As Mr Masterson said, education is an important area. It is essential that we provide young people with the attitudes, knowledge and the skills they need to be employable. That is critical for the future success of the economy.

We have emphasised the importance of focusing on overall outcomes. The review must be comprehensive, and all the key issues must be taken into account. The Committee's terms of reference recognise it as an area that is both comprehensive and complex.

We must ensure that sufficient time is given for the review to take those issues into account; it is necessary to make sure that we proceed carefully and on the basis of good evidence.

In our submission we highlighted the importance of developing a consensus. The final section of the Gallagher and Smith report 'The Effects of the Selective System of Secondary Education in Northern Ireland' stressed that it should be the starting point. A key part of our submission highlights from a business perspective what we believe young people should achieve in social education and in the context of overall economic objectives.

The need for an equitable distribution of skills is highlighted. There will be increasing demand for a highly skilled, adaptable and creative workforce, and higher expectations from all levels in the system. There will still be jobs for less skilled people, but in the knowledge economy there will be a move to higher levels of skills overall.

Recognising the importance of employability must be at the heart of the education system. Our vision for it creates high expectations where every individual is enabled to develop his potential to the optimum through being encouraged to gain the relevant knowledge, skills and values, thus enabling informed choices for lifelong development and employment.

We define employability as an individual's possession of the qualities and competencies necessary to meet the changing needs of employers and customers, thereby realising his aspirations and potential in work. Those are set out in exhibit 1 in our paper. We do not see that as a narrow business agenda, for many of the employability areas concern ensuring that an individual can succeed in and contribute to all aspects of society.

It must be recognised that standards in the education system will need to increase. Most work and life skills are the same, but there are obviously some very specific job skills. We need a system that is more focused on individuals, and it should be customised as much as possible. We should aim to develop each individual's potential to the full. There are no quick or simple fixes on the issue. In examining a way forward, we must be imaginative, taking into account such developments as the effects of short-term actions on the long term.

There are significant strengths in the education system - particularly for high-achieving pupils - but there are also several weaknesses. Too many young people leave without basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Too many leave with low qualifications, with little or no vocational skills and poor key skills. Expectations for many young people are too low, as are those of parents and teachers in many instances. We attach importance to the assessment of standards that are currently incomplete and too narrow. The curriculum is a key issue, and we are aware that the Council for the Curriculum, Examination and Assessment (CCEA) has given evidence.

Underperforming primary schools must be investigated. There is insufficient early intervention in both primary and pre-primary education. The need to improve the effective monitoring of performance in the education system is emphasised. At the moment, the key issues are the loss of self-esteem at the selection stage and the fact that the post-primary sector is too polarised.

We need vision and imagination in the way forward. It is necessary to consider potential long-term developments, taking into account the possibilities of mass customisation and the more effective use of information and communications technology. With regard to the importance of integrating schools with the local community, the balance between central direction and local enterprise must be considered.

We have highlighted structural, social and cultural barriers that must be surmounted. They are not a "driver", but we need to take account of cost and efficiency.

To maintain and increase academic standards, streaming is probably essential. We have supported a focus on reducing underachievement. There is evidence that it can be accomplished, and many schools have successfully addressed the issue.

Schools' performance must be monitored. We should encourage greater mobility between post-primary schools. There should also be a much stronger focus on finding out what students are good at to build education around that.

We attach a great deal of importance to creating the right environment for early learning in primary and pre-primary education. That can be done with the help of parents and service providers. The new curriculum can make a big difference to motivation and raising standards.

There are naturally limitations. Cost must be taken into account when major changes are being contemplated in the infrastructure of education. For example, a cost/benefit analysis should be undertaken when such changes are considered.

Some form of selection will be necessary where choice is offered or demand outstrips supply. We emphasise the importance of offering quality options so selection becomes less important in future.

Testing should be based on the curriculum, but continuous assessment should also be considered. We have no particular view on an ideal age for testing.

The "one size fits all" approach is probably not the most effective or appropriate way forward, and we should encourage local solutions. A major, radical shake-up may not be the most effective way forward, but neither should it be ruled out.

All the issues must be taken into account at this stage. The changes to the education system could be enormous, and it is important that we develop a consensus on the desired outcome. We should try to focus on a system that meets individuals' needs, and that should be customised as much as practically possible. We must ensure that all the key weaknesses are addressed to raise standards. The new curriculum will be a key part of the way ahead. We are unlikely to find quick fixes, and local solutions may be the effective way forward.

Mr Gibson:

You mentioned consensus, but that might be difficult to achieve. We shall have to be more ambitious than that. I also feel it is too vague simply to call for better outcomes; we must be more specific. How can education be improved to ensure improved results? What weaknesses must be dealt with to upgrade the system?

The word "vocational" keeps cropping up. However, every subject - reading, writing, even Latin - is that.

What I am getting at is this: what are you doing to raise the perception that the industrial part of society enjoys equality with other positions in life, including the academic? The missing factor is that you have not done enough to raise the perceived worth of industry in society. In other words, social ambitions are not effective to you.

Mr Masterson:

There are one or two aspects to that question, and we shall try to deal with them separately. First, what are our concerns - in other words, what are the threats? Secondly, what is our contribution? I can start with the former question, and Nigel Smyth can pick up on the latter.

Our concern is that we come out of the review with a better solution, but please do not be drawn to the impression that we have an education system failing in all respects. There are good outputs from the education system in some parts, and we do not want to lose that. The good education system has been one of the salient points in promoting ourselves as a local economy; do not forget that. However, we recognise that there are deficiencies in significant areas, and large numbers of people are coming out underequipped for the world of work. Our contribution, talking at a broader CBI level -

Mr Smyth:

Perhaps I might pick up one specific point before we turn to the second issue. If I have understood correctly, you asked what outcomes we require. We have been quite specific in exhibit 1 of our paper. We have defined what we mean by "employability", and it is worth reiterating. We need young people with the right values and attitudes, and we have identified where those are. We believe every young person leaving the education system should have the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, and we know we are currently failing in that area.

We believe the six key skills of communication, application of number, information technology, improving one's own learning and performance, working with others and problem solving are essential from an employer's perspective, and they are essential as life skills. We are encouraged by the current consultations with the CCEA that those will feature strongly in the future curriculum.

Other generic skills, such as customer care and proficiency in modern languages, are becoming increasingly essential. We also need skills to keep up to date in relevant knowledge and understanding and job-specific skills; we have highlighted those. We must build a consensus, for we do not have one at the moment, even on the issue in question. That consensus must be defined more on the basis of the skills.

There is an issue with the other point - examining bridging the divide between the vocational and the academic. Employers have a responsibility for that, particularly when advertising for staff. We still tend to focus on GCSEs, A levels and degrees, and there is not enough talk about level 4, level 5 and so on. One of the problems is that there is quite a confused picture of the nature of each of the extensive array of qualifications. We have been arguing that we must have a clear qualification framework, that people should be rewarded and be able to move between them for accreditation and so on. Certain medium and large employers have taken that on board, but it is a massive undertaking to try to educate so many small businesses. Evidence indicates that it takes something like five to six years for a new qualification to become accepted within the broader business community, so there is a task for us. I agree that business has a major responsibility regarding the issue. We must ensure that universities recognise that and ensure that their admission criteria take on board the vocational as well as the academic; there are also a number of other areas.

Our way forward is to focus more on the employability criteria to try to breach that academic and vocational divide.

Mr McHugh:

Why do you believe that employability must be at the heart of the education system when employers speak of ability, skills and attitudes, yet seek out GCSEs, A levels and degrees? Why do they use contradictory language on that? Why are you advocating individual accountability for teachers when that happens in schools already? Are you recommending the tried and failed solution of performance-related pay?

Mr Masterson:

It is true to say that employers tend to go to the marketplace and create an emphasis on qualifications; there seems to be a singular focus. The CBI expresses its concerns about individuals' broader skills in the workplace. There are concerns about those broader skills that graduates bring to it. They are deficient in a number of areas, and that is why the CBI is trying to track the skills Mr Smyth mentioned back into the education system. They must be cemented into the curriculum more.

Will employers start to take note at the point of selection? It is variable; some employers note the lack of skills at selection stage, but others do not notice the deficiency until they are at the other side.

Mr Smyth:

There is a problem with what is valued and what is assessed. At present the CCEA does not have assessment systems for key skills, but they are being developed, and they will come through. GCSEs and degrees will get an applicant through the door, but at the interview the employer will be looking for other key skills such as communication. On reading the advertisements in local newspapers one can see the increasing importance attached to communication and IT skills. There is a gradual movement towards those key skill areas.

The CBI identified those key skills almost 10 years ago, and we believe they will be fundamental in another 10 years' time. Other areas will change, but I feel that we are correct about them. Customer care and modern languages may also become more important.

In 1998 the school inspector said that approximately 15% of teaching was not good enough. That is not acceptable, and the CBI is concerned about it. There are some good teachers and head teachers, but there does not seem to be a process of filtering out the not-so-good ones. They need support, and they can come through, but we must be more hard-hitting. It is essential that we have the best teachers and that those teachers are rewarded effectively. They should be retained and developed, for that is where our economic future lies.

Mr Owen:

Under employment law, there must be selection criteria in advertising. That is not saying that every job requires a GCSE; it does not. It is wrong to have GCSE as a minimum qualification if the job does not require that level of education. One will find that people move more towards GCSE or an alternative, or put forward other selection criteria. However, employers are limited by fair employment law in how they advertise, carry out the selection process and bring the right people through. That process may not be directed towards having the best people at all times. There must be some form of selection criteria inserted into those advertisements.

Mr McHugh:

Is there a difficulty in having to select the person with the highest merit rather than a less qualified person who may be better suited to the job?

Mr Owen:

I do not subscribe to minimum qualifications in advertisements. I prefer to look for a range of experience or other criteria. By doing so I hope to bring forward the right people. Over the past few years, employers in Northern Ireland have been trying to supplement the education system. Where there have been gaps in social skills or in any other areas, employers have invested in training programmes to make people employable.

Mr Cooley:

The world of industry is rapidly changing. The education system feeds into that. Employers must look continually at the skill requirements for their jobs, and those change rapidly. As employers, we want an open-door policy to the world of education. We want people from education to come into our world to see the current and expected needs and look at how we can work together to ensure that young people coming through can find employment in our world. As employers, we still use education - we educate our own employees, as they also have to change and add to their skill base.

Mr McElduff:

In your paper you say that parent and pupil choice, with appropriate assistance from teachers, is the preferred long-term option. You also state that a radical shake-up at this stage may not be the most effective way forward. Why is that impossible in the short term?

Mr Masterson:

Some form of decision will have to be made on selection on the other side of the review, we are dealing with scarce resources. We have an open mind as to what type of review that process should be. There are problems with the current one. Not only does it inadequately reflect the performance of the child through school and make shaky predictions of future ability; it also inadequately examines matching the individual attributes of the child with the educational path and preferences to follow. We should like to move away from a single-focus decision output from our own selection to a more collaborative decision between the parent and the educator, the school or whatever that is to be.

Whatever fits the needs of the child is the key consideration. There is closer integration between parents and school on the other side of primary school key stage 2, since options allow it at that stage. That decision has gone wrong - there is flexibility for the child on the other side. Those children can be moved with greater ease between a more vocational, technical or academic route than is currently the case. The opportunity to move them again on the other side is very limited; that should be the focus of the test.

Mr Smyth:

We suggested in our submission that we should explore the more evolutionary approach. Potential disruption is our main concern about the big bang. We are all agreed that it is a complex arena, so we suggested that the evolutionary approach is more effective for earlier outcomes. Everyone learns at a different rate, no matter what the teaching system is. We must remember that a major shake-up in anything creates insecurity, and that it is created at different levels of learning ability. We support the system suiting the learning abilities of the pupil, rather than trying to fit those different levels of learning into one system.

Mr S Wilson:

I should like to welcome the realism apparent in many areas of the document.

My first question returns to what you said about the recruitment process, basic skills and so on. When people initially apply for a job, you must have some objective means of assessing whether they get over the first hurdle of interview or shortlisting. Are the current content of subjects and the means by which those are assessed so deficient that, when you advertise with academic criteria, you do not get people with those basic skills? Will there be a radical change in what goes on when subjects are being taught and assessed so that people with those skills can be brought to you?

You stated - and many people are coming to your point of view - that an immediate radical shake-up is not really an alternative. What do you see as a substitute? There is an expectation of some change.

In all the papers we have received - including your own - people have said that some change is needed, and that is realistic enough. What do you see as the biggest priorities in the interim? If we are not going to have a radical change, what are the small incremental changes required? Which are most immediately needed to make the post-primary education system more suited to the needs of society?

Mr Smyth:

The biggest weakness is in the key skill areas. A qualification is a qualification, but for many jobs it is pretty irrelevant. Key skills are essential for entering a working environment, and they have not featured strongly. They are now being addressed in the current and the proposed future curriculum, as well as in further and higher education. They are assessed in certain Training and Employment Agency (T&EA) training schemes. We have emphasised that, and we believe it to be very important.

Our biggest concern is that someone's having a number of GCSEs and so on does not necessarily mean he will be able to do the job - it simply shows a high level of knowledge. He or she may not be able to communicate. Employers are looking more at the broader skills.

Mr S Wilson:

Do you believe, therefore, that the content of subjects and the means of assessment ought to be changed to give greater emphasis to such things? It is a fairly radical step for the curriculum.

Mr Smyth:

Indeed, absolutely. From current CCEA proposals, we understand we are moving that way, and we are delighted to see that. At the moment we are in consultation concerning some of their latest proposals on key stage 4.

Mr Gibson:

Interpersonal skills have been moved up the agenda.

Mr Owen:

In academic terms, it is an excellent system. It produces excellent people in relation to academic qualifications and standards. Perhaps something that works so well - as has been proven - does not need to be fixed.

Looking across the whole spectrum, however, what do we find? As Mr Smyth has said, other necessary core skills are not being taught in the education system. We pick that up afterwards - in many cases after third-level education.

The other thing is that the career planning side is not working so well - in other words, taking in what the pupils want and where their vocation lies at an early age. You mentioned that "vocation" covers the academic and technical as well as the vocational. I do not see how they can be split, unless people are forced into a particular stream. There is room for a much closer liaison and better understanding of career planning in the education system before moving on, and I feel that is where the realisation of social skills and other core skills might lie.

Mr Masterson:

I shall add to those comments by emphasising that, while we point towards the high spots in the current education system, there are also soft spots, and we have emphasised that in our submission. There are underperforming primary as well as secondary schools. It is not talked about very widely. We talk about an underperforming secondary sector. In a sense, most people unfortunately look at the primary sector's output because of the selection tool. From our perspective, however, other measures not currently disclosed to parents, such as assessment at the various key stage levels, should be considered.

The focus must be moved more from what the transfer test or process will be - for there will be something there - towards how we drive up primary and secondary standards. We should have fewer outputs that do not meet the needs of industry. Fewer people would come out deficient in the most critical skills - not only in the employability skills mentioned by Mr Smyth, but in absolutely basic skills too. In the world of work, we currently find it difficult.

Mr McHugh:

Is there something lacking in primary or post-primary education that allows people to leave school with the idea that they are complete for life without needing to go into further education or lifelong learning? It seems that men tend not to go into further education. Industry must feel that there is a major deficiency in the education system. Could something be done to change the situation?

Mr Smyth:

Developing a culture of lifelong learning and development is a massive issue. We must focus on the area of better advice on careers, for people should be aware of what lies beyond school. People come out of school, university and further education colleges thinking that it is the end of their education. It should be only the start, however - companies will take those people on, and that is when they begin the serious training relevant to the world of work. We see careers guidance as a high priority. A review is currently underway, and we believe we have underinvested in that area. Careers guidance must be independent and of high quality so that young people can get a clearer idea of what lies beyond the school system.

Mr S Wilson:

If you are not going to have a radical shake-up of the system, are there immediate priorities that must be addressed?

Mr Smyth:

As we understand it, key stage 1 and 2 tests are not yet published, though that is relevant to what goes on in primary schools. We have also said that the status quo is not acceptable. It is more difficult to say what short-term steps should be taken. We could change the nature of the test to make it more relevant to the curriculum and include some form of continuous assessment. We could set the test later in the year or use key stage 2 at the same time. Overall, we must focus on increasing standards; a number of areas must be addressed. We could also encourage local partnerships between schools to reduce the divide between academic and secondary.

The Chairperson:

In your submission you said some form of streaming would be essential to ensure that high academic standards are maintained. Should the grammar schools be retained as they are, or do you propose that academic and vocational schools be combined?

Mr Smyth:

Our experience of streaming is that if you use the comprehensive system you must use streaming in particular classes. Some young people are better at languages than at science and maths, and that provides an opportunity for those with more ability to move on. One of the main points in our submission is that you must meet individuals' needs. There are high-flyers in schools, and we must encourage them; we suggest streaming by subject.

Mr Gibson:

Law is an academic subject. People like you and me hire lawyers, and I should like to think about that for a moment. They form part of a social elite. How can the business world raise its social standing in the public perception so that it can compete with the range of other professions we term academic? We are managing social ambitions.

Mr Smyth:

Business sees that many young people are focused on going into the safer environments of the professions or the Civil Service. Perhaps that is starting to change with the opportunities in the IT and other sectors. Employers must promote their sectors. The construction sector is crying out for people, since there is a job shortage, and the same is true of leisure and some manufacturing sectors. Employers have a key responsibility to promote their sectors, and highlight opportunities and career development. We are in a marketplace; employers have a major responsibility to take action so that they get the right people and provide development opportunities once they get them on board.

Mr Cooley:

There is a great task ahead, and it cannot be completed by any one sector. Those who give guidance to young people must visit the world of work more often to see where the careers are, what the opportunities are, and how that world has changed since they last visited. I know we should not spend time on anecdotes, but one teacher came into our company and said, "If you children do not learn hard, you will end up working in a factory like this." Those sorts of comments do not help matters, for many captains of industry and others earn more than lawyers do. There are many unemployed representatives of that profession.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your excellent contribution.

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