“Birmingham Chamber believes that more needs to be done to ensure more people leave school with essential literacy and numeracy skills.”
It gives me no satisfaction to repeat those words but they have been embodied in the Chamber’s policy work for a number of years.
They demonstrate how concerned the business community in Greater Birmingham has been about the growing skills gap. This has been brought into sharp focus with the publication of a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It showed that young adults in England have scored among the lowest results in the industrialised world in international literacy and numeracy tests, with England’s 16 to 24-year-olds falling behind their Asian and European counterparts.
England is 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy out of 24 countries.
The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher warned of a shrinking pool of skilled workers. And this is no more apparent than in the West Midlands.
Unlike other developed countries, the study also showed that young people in England are no better at these tests than people in the 55 to 65 age range.
When this is weighted with other factors, such as the socio-economic background of people taking the test, it shows that England is the only country in the survey where results are going backwards – with the older cohort better than the younger.
While this report is shocking, there is little point in dwelling on it. We must move on and here in the Greater Birmingham area we have been working hard with businesses and educational institutions to try to ensure that this growing crisis is dealt with before it becomes irreparable.
There has been a considerable amount of name-calling among politicians about who is to blame so it is encouraging that Ministers in England have announced a new maths qualification for 16 to 18 year olds as part of a drive to improve numeracy and its requirement that maths should be studied until the age 18 for those who do not have a good GCSE in the subject.
Skills are the lifeblood of any economy and are vital to the economic development of our city. Skills levels, however, vary enormously across the Greater Birmingham area.
And with that in mind, next month The Skills Show returns to the NEC. This event offers an array of activities and information on careers, skills and further and higher education. It is the perfect accompaniment to in-school careers advice and, given its current NEC location, an amazing resource to have right on our doorstep.
We know young people are inspired about the world of work when they can have a go at a variety of careers and that is why the Chamber works closely with The Skills Show, which runs from November 14 to 16.
Unemployment levels remain relatively high despite the significant number of frequently high-level jobs being advertised in the region (10,000+ in Birmingham in April 2013 alone).
In particular, Birmingham has a high proportion of residents with no qualifications and relatively low attainment of level 4 (degree equivalent) qualifications. Birmingham‘s employers are forced to rely heavily on in-commuters.
Whilst the recession has certainly played a role in the current situation, extremely high levels of youth unemployment also reflect structural issues which predate the collapse of the banking system. In addition, careers advice for school age children and young people is an area of concern. Following the 2011 Education Act, schools are now required to commission their own careers advice services as opposed to being required to use the centrally commissioned service, Connexions.
This has resulted in patchy and highly variable provision of careers advice across the sector and concerns that young people are leaving school without sufficient awareness of the career paths open to them.
While business accepts that it will be necessary to train people to ensure that they have job-specific skills, the Chamber believes that it is not the responsibility of employers to provide basic skills.
Too many employers are unsatisfied with the literacy, numeracy and communication skills of their staff and job applicants and, unfortunately, we are probably going to suffer from the legacy of wrong national policies for some time yet.
Birmingham Chambers’ Council has initiated an employability campaign, which aims to improve connections between schools, young people and businesses, influence the government and decision makers to prioritise the importance of these links.
This is not to say that our region isn’t also home to some excellent examples of best practice. There are some truly exemplary schools and colleges. BMetC, Bourneville College, The Schools of King Edward VI and Arden School, to name just a few, are inspiring in their dedication to ensuring that our children and young people leave education with the right skills, attitude, qualifications and knowledge.
The Chamber is also working on a consortium with further education colleges in the Greater Birmingham region.
The aim is to develop a shared response to the needs of employers based on the principle of voluntary alignment, a single map of existing vocational skills and an agreed approach to marketing the FE offer to business. The plan is to enter into formal agreement with the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and develop a formal partnership with the Chamber to engage more effectively with the business community across the LEP.
Members of the consortium, along with Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, include: Birmingham Metropolitan College, Bournville College of Further Education, Burton and South Derbyshire College, Kidderminster College, North East Worcestershire College, Solihull College, South and City College Birmingham, South Staffordshire College and University College Birmingham.
* Jerry Blackett is chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce