Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Mark Boleat and Education: Confused Messages

What did Mr Boleat really mean?

"The standard of state education is well below what it should be for an island of Jersey's incredible wealth. If education and employment training was improved, more local people would get the jobs and Jersey would be less reliant on immigration. The education system is simply not adequate." (Mark Boleat)

Once again, Mark Boleat, certainly as he has been reported, seems not to have investigated the matter in hand before pontificating about it. As this subject is education, one might say he has not done his homework.

The island’s schools follow the UK National curriculum, so if they are failing their pupils, this is something to do with the whole structure of the National Curriculum. The schools follow a largely academic syllabus, and not a vocational one.

It is not exactly clear how Mark Boleat thinks matters might be improved. Before the introduction of comprehensive schools in the UK, the school system set up in 1944 was tripartite – there were the technical colleges (which largely faded away), the grammar schools for the academic, and the secondary moderns, where the focus was much more on vocational education. Does he want a return to that kind of school system? If he does, he should at least spell it out.

Does he mean that the standard of academic education is poor? I see no sign of that. The academic top echelon at Hautlieu and the fee paying schools are showing good results every year.

The other States schools cannot be measured in the same way, because their academic top layer is creamed off to Hautlieu. On way to fairly gauge their successes is to add back the academic statistics from those pupils who went elsewhere, or, alternatively, to look at the numbers transferring to Hautlier. If a secondary school has very few pupils going to Hautlieu compared to others, that might well be cause for concern.

Trident and Career Advice

And there is also opportunities in place for pupils to experience a workplace environment in Operation Trident, or has Mr Boleat not come across that?

What is missing, perhaps, is enough of a link between schools, careers, and Trident. Trident, after all, only provides a small opportunity for pupils to go to businesses, but perhaps there could be more follow up. After all, if businesses are looking for skill and ability, this is an opportunity for saying to the pupils to give them a call afterwards.

Degrees and Dangers of Statistics

On the subject of degrees, Mr Boleat remarked:

"The hard reality is that if Jersey wants to continue to have a high and rising standard of living and slower population growth then it must produce a better educated and skilled workforce and increase the labour market participation rate of local people. In Jersey only 16% of the Jersey-born workforce have degree level education, compared with 26% of those born elsewhere in the British Isles and 40% of those born outside Europe. For comparison 60% of the inner London workforce have degree level education."

But as Mark Forskitt remarked:

“There is a weakness in the numerical argument. It is comparing who is in the workforce without recognising the mobility of the people, That rather depends on the industry and work that is available and the options to travel/commute. e.g locals who have a degree in engineering are not likely to return to Jersey as the positions are not available here. It is hardly surprising there's a higher proportion of non-local born have degrees - one of the factors in importing population is to fill skills shortage eg in surgeons where degree level requirement is much more likely a pre-qualification. None of which really is germane to primary and secondary education which practically 100% of Jersey-borns do have, and seems to tbe the subject of the concerted attack.”

So while a physicist may well find a suitable job in University research or in industry in the UK, it is unlikely that physicists will be in high demand in Jersey. They will either head abroad or retrain for the local market. I personally was at school with a number of contemporaries who went into engineering, none of whom returned to Jersey. Likewise, I know a marine biologist who went abroad (and is now in Kenya) because the job opportunities for that locally are thin on the ground. The numbers of graduates departing Jersey for jobs elsewhere will certainly skew figures in comparison, especially as the numbers are small, as is the population, compared with a country or even a city in the UK.

London is a particularly bad example for comparison, because from early times the city has acted like a sponge, sucking in a workforce from the surrounding countryside. This was a process which accelerated during the industrial revolution, and while lessened, shows little sign of abating. London, not being an Island, of course, can draw from its commuter belt, what Betjeman called "Metroland". It is not possible for Jersey to do that.

In fact, the statistics from the Office of National Statistics also mention that ““Over 40% of graduates worked in the public administration, education and health industry compared to 22% of non-graduates”. And it notes that “Turning to the banking and finance industry, 21% of employed graduates were working in this area compared to 14% of employed non-graduates.”.

So while Mr Boleat implies that the 60% workforce with degrees work mainly in finance, the statistics themselves would suggest otherwise, especially when you consider the heavy concentration of public sector administrators in London. Jersey has a large public sector, but nowhere near as large as London, where we find a Civil Service at the top rung of the UK public sector.

The other thing which should be considered is what one might call “wastage”. In 2013, 47% of graduates in the UK were working in non-graduate jobs. We should also consider how that applies in Jersey. The UK can afford high levels of wastage because there are vast numbers of students taking degree courses. On a smaller scale, in an Island like Jersey, to increase the numbers of graduates in graduate jobs might well require more students than exist on the Island!

Vocational Training at Highlands

Now there is vocational training at Highlands, and perhaps here Mr Boleat may have a point. It seems to me that a lot of the courses are driven by demand from numbers of students, rather than demand from business. That is to say, the popularity of courses appears to be fed from the bottom, from the students who want to do a course, rather than the businesses who may need specific skills.

The two business degree courses, of course, are an example of good training for finance, something the Jersey Business School also supplies in its courses. But the below degree level vocational courses do not seem especially tailored to the needs of business. I suspect more could be done there.

We should perhaps for better comparisons look to the Isle of Man, which faces similar problems. A report there notes that:

“The on-Island delivery of higher education and student research projects and placements can link directly with, and contribute to, the Manx economy.”

And in fact, 6,750 hours of graduate-level work is poured into economy each year with placements. They also note that:

“Lancaster University’s Work Foundation reports that linkages between higher education institutions and organisations (for example, business and public sector) are critical to the creation of novel ideas with the capacity to be used to economic advantage. It is therefore advisable to encourage direct links between the education sector and relevant industries so that synergies are developed.”

Soft Skills

But perhaps should also be considered is what Mr Boleat terms “soft skills”. In an August 2014 article in the Huffington Post, he notes:

“While employers understand that technical knowledge is increasingly important as workers progress in their careers, being good at communicating “and able to work in a team are the key ingredients to getting the initial foot in the door.

“The education system can teach school leavers a number of transferable skills that will ease their transition into the workforce, but it is soft employability skills that offer a real opportunity for young people to become job-ready and transform their prospects. The economy is steadily improving, but we need to address the skills shortage and ensure that young people are better prepared for the world of work in order to bolster this economic growth. We also know that failure to do so results in high levels of youth unemployment and a tragic waste of talent.”

Yet the initiatives which he describes in this article by the Working Together programme are outside the educational system. It is about apprenticeships, work placements and business taster sessions. There’s a fair bit of that taking place in Jersey, but as with Mr Boleat’s City of London, it is post-education, and it is not clear how that has anything to do with the standard of state Education in Jersey. So why did Mr Boleat castigate the educational system?

No Clear Vision

It is fine to pontificate, but unless Mr Boleat provides some concrete suggestions as to exactly what he is looking for, it seems inconsiderate to simply throw out blanket comments about education in Jersey. If he could suggest ways in which Jersey could follow initiatives described in his article, that would be really useful, and something worth listening to.

Instead, what we have, in his speech, are merely the words of the business guru, who makes pronouncements without much in the way of substance. I would invite him to suggest positive ways to make improvements rather than merely criticising (and not coherently either).

Off the Peg Skills: The Cheap Option

But there is another matter to consider. It appears that finance businesses sometimes want an easy option – they do not want the cost of training up members of staff, and it is much simpler to buy “off the shelf” employees who fit the bill, which often comes into conflict with Jersey’s immigration policy. It is especially likely to occur in a recession, where pressures to cut costs are high.

Isn’t it time that instead of just expecting education to do all the work, that businesses acknowledge that they have a corporate responsibility to take on some of that burden themselves? So be fair, some businesses in the finance sector do this, and have employees also taking courses while working - but not all by any means.

I see a lot of corporate sponsorship of charitable and sporting events, but wouldn’t it be nice if they also sponsored more employees for training than they do now? Isn’t there a case for arguing that is a civic duty as much as sponsoring events (which is, of course, also promotional advertising)?



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