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.


Meanwhile the discussion is more fully aired here:


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?

8 comments on “Everybody Out! Industrial Relations Breakdown

  1. I strongly agree, although academia seems hell bent on just producing clones, industry is also still of the mentality that investing in their workforce is not financially relevant. In the software industry there are very few companies that truly invest in their workforce with the realisation that it makes them more money. Perhaps Thatcher’s legacy at work.

    I think industry needs to get far more involved in education at a much lower level, rather than schools/universities being seen as the institution, maybe we should be looking to send students to company based school programs. A lot more how like modern football academies work for big clubs.

  2. I think another key question is how do you address/formalise innovation? University breeds innovation because a lot of people are time-rich/bored at university and so can experiment. Companies like Google for example have adopted their “20%” rule but are either of these approaches optimal for the type of innovation that business really wants to see/the type that is most beneficial to us all?

    • @Simon – I’m not sure many university staff would agree they are time-rich! The problem there is that academic research is not commercially orientated.

      It would be interesting if you could explain a bit more about the Google 20% role?

  3. Google 20% rule is that you get to spend twenty percent of your time on your own projects or fixing something that’s not your job. There’s a good practical example here:

    Some other companies like Atlassian practice this and have thought it through pretty thoroughly:

    I think the crux is it has to be very carefully thought out and structured, you can’t just give people 20 percent and say do what you want as people will just waste that time, probably working on their CV’s. You have to challenge people with specific tasks to get them motivated but then allow them the freedom and time to innovate when and where they see fit.

  4. Umm….after 35 years in education (secondary and higher), not including my own, I think that perhaps we do need to take a pragmatic stance on primary and secondary education, perhaps it is for the production of employable people who will be able to take on the roles required by their employers, people who are punctual, civil, creative, responsible, curious, eager to learn new skills and information, who are literate and numerate. I am not talking about ‘factory fodder’ here, but young people who will join the professions.
    Universities are now experiencing ‘bad behaviour’ amongst a large proportion of 1st year undergraduates, these include Primary Teacher trainees, whose antics are those that one would expect from Year 10 and 11 pupils. This inappropriate behaviour is manifesting itself in the lecture room, a situation which has never occured before this year, with the open use of mobile phones and MP3 players, laughing and talking over the lecturer’s voice and during session tasks, absenteeism, eating and drinking (including alcohol)and complaints when asked to make contributions to teaching sessions. Admonition is greeted with complaints that lecturers are being patronising and since the students are paying fees, they are able to do as they please.The idea that they may be disrupting the learning of others does not occur to them. Their refusal to carry out tasks, unless they contribute to formal assessment and final degree classifications, is bewildering for those of us who see learning as a conytinuum. The idea of engaging with learning because that is why they are attending university seems to be beyond their comprehension. This is from people with a minimum of 3 C grades at A level.
    For the most part, these are young people who have chosen this career path, not ‘ended up’ teaching through Clearing, due to unexpectedly poor A Level grades. They are recruited to Initial Teacher Education early in the academic year before they finish secondary school and references and good predicted grades are being given by their schools. What is happening?
    If this is deemed to be acceptable behaviour by these young people, who are our future educators, what hope is there for those who emerge from the secondary school system barely literate and numerate with a disaffected attitude towards society?
    In addition, the government’s QTS tests in English and Maths, taken towards the end of their undergraduate (and postgraduate) teacher training, are proving a really difficult hurdle for many, to the extent that Michael Gove has announced that a Conservative government would limit the number of times that they can be re taken by trainee teachers. What is this saying about the level of education of our young people, if those with fairly decent A levels are struggling with literacy and numeracy?
    Yes, I am moving towards the stage where I am seen as being the ‘older generation’, yes the older generation always say that ‘things were not like this my in day’, but indeed – they were not.

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