A FEW years ago I attended my daughter’s prize giving. She attended the same state school my wife and I had both attended. The proceedings commenced with an introduction by the Head of Year which I here reproduce as near word-for-word as I can remember it: “Well, we were told that this year’s children were outstanding and we’d be getting an incredibly special group, but nothing could have prepared us for the amazing experience it has been.”
What I did feel entitled to expect, however, was that my daughter and her class-mates might be leaving school with a basic education that fitted them for life. Sadly, for most of them, that was probably not the case. In 2009 Sir Terence Leahy, former chief executive of Tesco, launched a scathing attack on educational standards which he described as “woefully low in too many schools”. His comments were echoed at the time by Sir Stuart Rose, the then boss of Marks & Spencer.
I myself left school in 1979 aged 16; a product of the much maligned comprehensive system. For all the abuse heaped on comprehensives, my school actually gave me and others of my generation a great education. When we left, we were literate and numerate. Tesco and M&S are very large companies. Mine is a very small family company. Seven years on from the remarks made by Sirs Terence and Stuart however, our experience is that the educational standards of young adults are, if anything, worse now than then.
Recruitment is a nightmare. We do not ask the earth of job applicants but we do require certain standards. We give all applicants tests in basic spelling and arithmetic. We ask them to put files into alphabetical order. We ask them, using a table of postage rates and a set of scales to work out the correct postage for envelopes of different weights. The results would be laughable were they not so tragically sad.
Just as worrying is the fact that they come to us boasting 10 or a dozen GCSEs, mostly at grade A and B, when most would not have scraped even a C in a 1979 O-Level. It is the same story with A-Levels. I have learned the hard way not to trust such qualifications in the slightest.
It is not their fault of course; the system has failed them. It is a failure however which businesses cannot afford to make good. We do expect to spend money training staff on our profession, but not on how to spell, add up, multiply and punctuate. It must change.