Everybody Out! Industrial Relations Breakdown

A couple of recent articles have led me to reflect on the on and off-going relationship between education and industry and commerce.

There are still those in education – usually the most traditional academics – who see education has having nothing to do with the world of work at all. And there are many in industry and commerce who still see schooling as providing little more than a literate, numerate, punctual and essentially passive workforce. Fortunately over the past decades there have been an increasing number in both camps that have been willing to explore a middle ground, but at the end of the day there is still a long way to go before we arrive at a successful balance between the two extremes and start to offer an educational experience that offers an appropriate preparation for life and work in the 21st Century as opposed to the 19th.

I came into education in the late 1970s having trained in Industrial Design, and with the conviction that there was a need to move away from traditional academic approaches towards the development of a new set of skills and approaches to knowledge that would not only serve the economy but make students more critically and socially aware, better able to creatively solve everyday problems and to be able to think and act for themselves.

As a result, over the past thirty years there have been a number of occasions when I have approached industry and commerce for assistance with case-study materials, photographic resources or support for workshops and other live projects. In that time, with a few notable exceptions, things have not changed a great deal. Usually there have been one of two responses. The first is a simple ‘We’d like to help but we don’t have the time’, and the second a much more positive, but ultimately more frustrating, ‘We are really keen to support education, just let us know what we can do’, but despite the good intentions, the latter offer often fails to come to fruition as it later emerges, they don’t have the time to make any more than a rather superficial contribution: ‘We do have a business to run, you know’. It seems that industry and commerce has always been ready to criticise, but generally unwilling to actually do anything.

So just what is it that industry wants? There seems to be two answers to this. First, a literate, numerate, punctual and essentially passive workforce. Secondly, and increasingly over the past 30 years, young people who are flexible, technically skilled, interdisciplinary creative problem-solvers with excellent communication and teamwork skills. What’s going wrong is that industry still believes that GCSEs, A levels and academic-based diplomas and degrees will provide what it wants. In reality the current curriculum and qualifications tend to develop exactly the opposite – a rigid, subject-based experience in which original thought and action and any hint of collaborative work (or ‘cheating’ as it’s often thought of as) are positively discouraged.

In this recent article the director-general of the CBI is highly critical of the ‘wasteful’ spending on education which he claims has failed to produce improvements in socially and culturally deprived areas of the country. Or rather, as he goes on to explain, to provide a workforce that can read, write and turn up on time. But predictably he seems is to identify raising the number of students gaining five good ‘academic’ GCSEs as the solution to the problem.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/dec/31/school-system-shameful-cbi-boss

Meanwhile the discussion is more fully aired here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jan/01/manchester-academy-success

Beyond the account of the Manchester Academy, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders attacks the CBI for simply ‘standing on the sidelines and criticising’. Alan Smithers attacks the government for providing the wrong sort of qualifications, and Mike Tomlinson challenges the appropriateness of the curriculum.

So there’s still a long way to go. Perhaps we need the services of an arbitration tribunal?