Considerations on the future development of GCSE leavers

Jo Sellick, MD, Sellick Partnership, discusses the pros of a technical education, and why our system needs to change if we are to close the skills gap

GCSE results day is a pivotal point in the lives of school leavers, who are today deciding on the direction in which their future career will head. Whether they go on to higher education, apprenticeships, vocational training or straight into work, today’s results will play a crucial role. Today is also a milestone in the UK examination system, as it is the first time the new 9-1 numerical grading method has been rolled out in the majority of subjects. Promisingly, there has been a rise in the number of pupils achieving overall pass levels, which rose by 0.5% to 66.9%. Around 4% of entries have been given the highest possible grade 9 mark. 

Implemented by former education secretary Michael Gove, the numerical system aimed to bring the UK more in line with the world’s top performing countries, but some have argued that the lack of coursework and emphasis on exams makes the assessments far tougher. A number of private schools have shunned the new system and chosen to stick with the old method, leading critics to argue that they have an advantage over state schools as their pupils stand a better chance of gaining the highest possible qualifications. But irrespective of these potential downsides, it is time we as a country started looking beyond purely academic performances as a measure of talent and future success.

Skills gaps are rife across many sections of the UK economy and are predicted to worsen as Brexit takes hold next year, and some of the most noticeable talent gaps can already can be found in STEM subjects. While plans are already afoot to bring the education system in line with this and train more youngsters in STEM subjects, this kind of revolution takes time and employers simply cannot afford to wait until another generation enters the workforce. Many school leavers will have shortfalls in STEM subjects and today’s results disappointingly confirmed that girls are less likely than boys to take the STEM subjects computing and ICT. But pupils without these grades still bring so many other skills with them that could help to boost the British economy. Employers must consider what on-the-job training they could provide for this kind of candidate, or whether mentoring students as they enter their next level of education could help to prepare them for the world of work. It was encouraging to note that A-level entries for STEM subjects rose this year, with 36.2% of all entries in 2018 coming from a STEM subject, up from 34.5% in 2017, but demand for candidates skilled in this field is expected to outstrip supply at a rapid rate in the years to come. 

From construction to communications, it is hard to imagine an industry that will not rely on technology at an increasing pace in the very near future.

Business owners must also understand that it is not just roles directly linked to STEM subjects that are at risk of a shortfall in talent. Digitisation and an increasing use of technology across almost every sector of the economy will mean that the vast majority of employers will require tech-savvy candidates in the years ahead. From construction to communications, it is hard to imagine an industry that will not rely on technology at an increasing pace in the very near future, yet the ageing workforce consists of many candidates who have minimal skills in this field. Unless their recruitment strategy is based entirely on hiring school, college and university leavers, every business owner will have to start training the workforce in IT skills. Implementing a strong training plan to do this will not only benefit the workforce across all age spectrums, but it will also bring advantages to the business as a whole, as it shows that the firm is invested in staff development and cares as an employer. As the talent shortage becomes increasingly apparent, this sort of benefit strengthens employer brand and helps to attract the best possible candidates to the role.

Of course, the government has a crucial role to play in developing the workforce of the future and it is with baited breath that I await further news on Theresa May’s education review, which was first announced in February this year. The prime minister’s pledge to give genuine choice between high quality technical, vocational and academic routes would benefit everybody, and it is about time the nation recognised the huge value that candidates without academic success can bring to the economy. I would urge those pupils who are disappointed with today’s results to look to role models who left school with very little, yet went on to huge success. Richard Branson, Lord Alan Sugar and even Albert Einstein left school with disappointing results, yet have gone on to achieve incredible things. But I am certain that they would not have done so without the support of mentors, training and advice along the way, as well as employers who gave them a chance because they spotted potential. All business leaders would be wise to bear this in mind today and in the years ahead, as you never know when you might be inducting the next Einstein into your company!