August 22, 2017
JA UK CEO: Put Work Skills Back In the Curriculum
Britain needs to get rid of its obsession with exam results, says the boss of the leading charity helping young people join the world of work. Michael Mercieca, a trusted guru on work as chief executive of Young Enterprise, argues the focus on exams means we may be failing the next generation. His organisation works with a quarter of a million students every year – almost two thirds of schools are involved – and Mercieca says it helps make up for failings in the formal curriculum. "Young people deserve better than they are getting," he declares, calling for work skills to be put back on the National Curriculum. " am dumbfounded how policy makers don’t get this."
Tens of thousands of students received their A-level results last week and this week tens of thousands more will hear how they performed in their GCSEs. For them and their parents it may seem like the most important news of their life. Mercieca insists it is not. "Congratulations to all the young people who received their A-level results, and the best of luck to those awaiting GCSE results. Young people should celebrate and be proud of their academic achievements."
"However, they should also be aware that exam results alone will not necessarily be enough to succeed in life. The education system must ensure that all young people across the country are prepared for the world of work." He points to a survey issued last month by the Confederation of British Industry which found that employers rate attitude and aptitude for work as more important than academic achievement when recruiting school and college leavers. And he cites a report from schools inspector Ofsted which found that only 10 per cent of the secondary schools it visited put enough emphasis on preparing students for the workplace.
Mercieca says, "The current educational focus on exam results and academia means young people leaving education are at serious risk of not being prepared adequately for their future life."
Young Enterprise was set up in 1962 and runs programmes in schools for pupils of all ages from primary to sixth form, teaching them about the world of work, business and, for older students, what it means to be an entrepreneur.
Education Secretary Justine Greening hailed Young Enterprise as a "great organisation" in her Conservative Party conference Speech last year. But Mercieca is not equally enthusiastic about the Government’s attitude to work and education. "Employability and enterprise education are no longer on the national curriculum. They used to be, but that was scrapped in 2013. It was very sad and we protested strongly. But we were ignored. And yet these skills are good for younger people, the economy and the country. How come education became so focused on GCSEs and A-levels? Younger people deserve better."
Mercieca himself has had a career rich in variety. He was born in London to Maltese parents. His father worked for Shell, so by the age of five Mercieca had lived both in the UK and Guatemala. His parents then moved back to Malta, where he also stayed until he was 24. At that point he was playing guitar in a band and the record company wanted him back in London. His music career never took off. But his parents’ advice to get an accounting qualification as a back-up boosted his corporate career. He started in manufacturing at blue-chip engineering groups GKN and Racal before moving into media at BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm, and later Sky before moving on to independent production companies.
At 50, Mercieca joined the charitable sector working for the Prince’s Trust. Initially asked to be an interim finance director for a few months, he ended up staying for 8 years. Now 63, he has been chief of Young Enterprise since 2012.
7 KEY SKILLS STUDENTS MUST MASTER
The aim of Young Enterprise is to introduce and foster in students and young people key skills that are not typically covered by the academic part of the education system. Key skills targeted are:
3. Financial capability
7. Teamwork and resilience
Having had such a wealth of experience, he says: ‘Students should have the opportunity at school to develop the key employability skills that employers are crying out for, as well as being made aware of the wide range of opportunities available to them in the modern and diverse work place.
Young Enterprise’s best-known scheme is the year-long Company Programme, which sees sixth form students set up a business to make and sell a product. The results that have emerged are hugely varied: a shoe insole with a hidden compartment for a house key or money; a series of books for children with cancer to help deal with the side effects of chemotherapy; gardening kits for children.
Young Enterprise argues that the skills learnt are vital to the students’ future careers. A recent report from the CBI backs this up: ‘The transition from education to work needs focus if we are to minimise unemployment at this critical stage of life.’
But Young Enterprise has seen the money it receives from Government cut over the past seven years. In 2009-2010, it received more than £2million. Today that is closer to £200,000 a year. That means there are fewer places are on the Company Programme. In 2009-2010, more than 32,000 sixth-formers participated in the scheme, today that figure is closer to 20,000.
Mercieca has yet to meet the Education Secretary. ‘We’ve exchanged letters,’ he says. Has she given him any new funds? ‘No.’
Fundraising from donations is becoming more difficult. He says: ‘Funding has been incredibly challenging, particularly since the referendum. We are primarily funded from financial service firms and they face a lot of uncertainty politically and economically.’ And getting funding from smaller firms near to each school is also becoming harder. He says: ‘Local income from small and medium-sized enterprises is down 10 per cent in the past couple of years.
‘It is very upsetting because we know the difference the Company Programme makes, especially to the kids that need it the most, those that come from deprived areas.’ Mercieca says he took a pay cut of 20-30 per cent when he left the corporate world to work in charity and has had only one pay rise in the past five years.
The wage cut means he no longer buys suits in Harvey Nichols but on visits to Malta. He says: ‘Italian designer Zegna has a factory there and I go to a little shop that sells the suits for a quarter of the retail price. I go back a couple of times a year to see my aunts and cousins and I buy a suit each time.’ Mercieca, who drives a dinky Fiat 500, adds: ‘Apart from property, the most expensive thing I ever bought was a guitar.’
So what became of his musical ambitions? He says: ‘I still play at home and used to play at the Prince’s Trust staff Christmas party.’ His dedication to the advancement of young people is evident in all he does. In one respect, however, he does believe there are some things they should be shielded from. When it comes to his guitar-playing he says: ‘I still do a few power chords in the living room with the amp whacked up. But it has to be when my family are out.’