Are UK school leavers ‘worst in Europe for essential skills’?

Janet Downs's picture
British school leavers are the worst in Europe for 'essential skills' needed to complete entry-level jobs in business, a new survey revealed’.

Daily Telegraph, 29 June 2015

The Telegraph was partly churning a press release from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) with a headline even more damning:

75% of UK school leavers lack essential job skills according to finance bosses

But the press release text, as the Telegraph to its credit noted, said 40% of CIMA members who responded to a survey noted a lack of ‘functional skills, basic literacy and numeracy’ in school leaver candidates for junior roles.

40% isn’t 75%, so where did the 75% figure come from?

It could be because CIMA added up the number of respondents who found problems with other categories listed on the survey*. These included technical knowledge, IT skills and ‘professionalism’. That strategy is common among politicians when responding to the annual CBI survey (see here). This inflates the proportion of school leavers who are lacking something-or-other and can be used in the sport of state education bashing.

However, that’s not the likely explanation. The 75% figure is the proportion of UK school leavers hired by CIMA members who required ‘significant training’. This is interpreted as being because they lacked ‘essential job skills’.

But does the survey actually imply this? Digging deeper, it may suggest a more nuanced answer.

First, the press release separated ‘school leavers’ from those leaving further education (FE) or university. This means they are likely aged 16-17. The majority of this age group remain in sixth forms or FE colleges and don’t seek employment at this young age. This means CIMA members are recruiting ‘school leavers’ from a diminishing pool of young people who are less likely to want to remain in school. These are more likely to have fewer qualifications.

Second, it would be expected that inexperienced employees, especially ones so young, would require ‘significant training’ for a job such as management accounting. This would no doubt include preparation for CIMA ‘entry level qualifications’. Entries for these have ‘boomed in recent years’, CIMA said. This shows how UK firms ‘are increasingly investing in raising the basic skills of their candidates’.

This implies, of course, that schools are failing to instill ‘basic skills’ in school leavers. But details of CIMA’s entry level qualification make it clear the exam is for ‘students with little or no accounting background’. That would include the majority of UK young people aged 16-17. The exam is also targeted at a wider group of people than school leavers including those wanting a refresher course. It requires candidates to have ‘a good understanding of both English and maths and a passion to succeed in business.’

Having ‘good understanding’ doesn’t mean lacking in basic skills.

The CIMA entry level qualification could, however, form part of a suite of exams leading to graduation at 18 via multiple routes. That is where the UK should be heading. Not only would this be beneficial to young people, but would prevent data about 16-17 year-old school leavers, a tiny minority, from being used to imply lack of basic skills among all school leavers.

*NOTE: CIMA kindly sent me a copy of the survey. However, I don’t have permission to release it. CIMA couldn’t let me have details of the answers because it didn’t have permission from respondents to release these.

CORRECTION. The last paragraph has been changed to refer to 'a tiny minority' not 'the huge minority'.
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mistemina's picture
Fri, 31/07/2015 - 10:31

I am disappointed with this Telegraph report. it appears to towing blindly the right wing believes. this report would be better suited in the Daily mail.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 01/08/2015 - 08:33

John - the Mail also covered the story but didn't mention that 40% not 75% actually complained about the numeracy/literacy levels. It took its lead from CIMA's headline.

The Mirror said the 'vast majority' of school leavers lacked basic skills but did mention the 40% further down the article.

CIMA's press release doesn't seem to have been covered by other papers.

The Telegraph has deteriorated significantly in recent years. It used to be a well-respected newspaper led by editors with high reputation. Peter Oborne explains why he resigned from the DT here. It makes depressing reading. My dad took the DT every day until the last years of his life. If he read it today he'd despair.

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