Education and skills in Herts

Is it Schools or the system of qualification failing our children?

It is wonderful to see a greater emphasis placed on the concept of apprenticeships once more. Engaging an employer in the final years of a child’s education has many benefits. Firstly, it provides a new “master” and a new “environment” for the student at the same time as the motivation of an income. Secondly much of the subject matter will be focused on the employment giving the whole exercise of learning a new purpose. Thirdly it has been proven that Apprenticeships create dedicated employees who often remain very loyal to their employer creating a much more stable relationship to the long-term benefit of both employer and employee.

I remember opening my first welder training studio in North Hertfordshire College in 2011 when John Hayes MP was a Skills Minister, and he kindly attended our opening ceremony. Following the speeches, I went to talk to the students who had enrolled on a Weldability Sif Welder training course and to this day I am still choked by the memory of a conversation with one particular young Student who said, “when I was at school my teacher told me that I would be nothing in the future, but I can weld, and I want to thank you mister”. I am also reminded of another person I have had the pleasure to meet during my career in the welding industry who left school with just two CSE’s, who became a high quality welder and in his 40’s became the Welding Engineer for Rolls Royce and secured a PhD in Metallurgy and now works as a University lecturer, a story that demonstrates we are all capable of learning, but not always at the same speed or therefore at the same point in our lives.

I remember my education in the 60’s and 70’s and the opportunities the school system afforded to me then. At the very beginning of the Comprehensive movement, pupils were offered the opportunity to take both CSE’s or GCE’s and both would be considered by employers as a mark of achievement in relevant subjects and often those with CSE’s went into Apprenticeships and those with GCE’s usually went on to A levels and University. Everyone achieved something.

Apprentice at a college

An apprentice learning skills at college

When you recognise the national average level of achievement in English and Maths is regularly missed by about one third of our children, this presents a problem for those Students not achieving GCSE qualifications in those subjects. Why is this a problem? It is absolutely vital that a student has demonstrated competence in English and Maths to even be considered for an Apprenticeship and indeed Employers tend only to interview Students that have already achieved these qualifications, leaving the “forgotten third” seeking further education in order that they might pass a functional skills test in maths and English later. One must ask why, after 12 years schooling, all children are not securing a higher level of pass rates in these subjects and is it the schools failing the student or the system of qualification?

I am not suggesting a reduction in standards or any additional examinations, merely an improvement in opportunity. For example, a separation in the GCSE paper to include mathematics divided as follows would enable a pass mark to be achieved more frequently by separating Rudimentary Mathematics ‐ Arithmetic ‐ Geometry from say Analytical Mathematics ‐ Algebra & Algorithmic Equations – Calculus. In terms of qualifications required in English, this might be separated similarly at GCSE, the literature component is arguably too heavy, as what employers really want to assess is reading, writing and cognition skills – rather than a propensity for creative writing or an appreciation of stories.

Like many people that care about their society I care that social mobility exists and is promoted as a viable option for everyone. I genuinely believe that academic snobbery is holding back the life chances of some of our children as clearly everyone wants a chance to leave their school gates with a level of optimism about their future and we are sadly labelling young people as failures at a very influential point in their lives. I am pleased to see the prospect of higher grades in GCSE qualifications equal higher salaries during life as has been recently demonstrated, but the “forgotten third” also need to obtain gainful employment often in very important vocational careers, most of which might just require both maths and English at a very basic level. Would it be beyond the capability of the school system to consider a two-tier qualification in these two subjects that results in providing some recognition of knowledge in English and maths?

As employers see the relevance of modern-day apprenticeships once more in securing loyal employees in a restricted labour market, we need to reward vocational aptitude just as much as academic competence and I truly feel we are failing young people so sadly in this way. If this Government is truly serious about levelling up lifetime opportunities for all, it clearly must start in our Schools and recognise that this problem exists to the detriment of our society.
Career decisions need to be decided in earlier life and Employers are now expected to engage with Schools and Colleges which I applaud, so let’s not see this great opportunity go to waste.

I urge the Government to spare a thought for those that we are leaving behind and my thanks to Alex Burghart MP our new Skills Minister for taking the time to discuss this issue with me at our recent Generation Hitchin event, organised by the Hertfordshire LEP.


Students studying at university

#LevellingUp @biz4Biz @weldingworld @education


Adrian Hawkins OBE

About the Author
Adrian Hawkins OBE was awarded his honour by the Queen in the 2021 New Years Day Honours list for his services to business. A lifetime businessman, Adrian Chairs biz4Biz a business support organisation which he founded 11 years ago to create a business network in the Home Counties. Adrian is also the Managing Director of Welding World, Chairman of the Hertfordshire LEP Skills and Employment Board and Chairman of the Stevenage Development Board. Adrian has 40 years’ experience in the world of business.

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