Talent shows

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on the importance of spoken word skills to help young people realise their aspirations

One of the joys of being in Labour’s Education team is the chance to get out and about, visiting schools and being inspired by the enthusiasm of pupils and teachers alike.

Last week, I attended Holy Family School in Waltham Forest – a multi-cultural secondary school experimenting with writing and performing poetry as a means of nurturing confidence, creativity and self expression. The result was outstanding – a room full of articulate, funny, thoughtful young people excited about what they had, and could, achieve. Sitting in the audience I had no doubt that any employer would be impressed by the skills these young people had learned. 

I will be raising the importance of such skills in a Lords debate on the importance of preparing young people for the world of work. We already know that the CBI and Federation of Small Businesses are desperate for young people to have better ‘soft’ skills such as communication, collaboration and problem solving. Yet the government is driving education in the opposite direction, with an obsession on cramming facts, working in isolation and sitting traditional exams. As part of this move spoken word skills have been removed from the English curriculum.

We have previously warned Ministers about the dangers of giving schools responsibility for careers advice without any resources or expertise, and it would be interesting to understand whether they – and indeed the Department for Education – believe the changes to have been consequence free. A recent report from the Commons Education Select Committee on this issue paints a horror story of poor training and advice, with teachers pressurising young people to stay on in the Sixth Form at all costs to improve the school budget. In response, the government said that careers provision was a matter for individual schools – something that the Chair of the Committee rightly described as an abdication of responsibility.

The result of such inaction from Ministers is reflected in a recent report from Pearson which discovered that over a third of young people relied on TV programmes to help them decide on careers, with and one in ten girls looking to celebrities for inspiration. 

With a dwindling job market, we must give young people the best preparation available to have any chance of success. The Coalition’s failed economic policies have resulted in youth unemployment rates of over 20%, with more than a million not in education, employment or training. We can help by realigning their aspiration to the types of jobs that will be generated over the next two decades, many of which may not even exist today. Some of these jobs will be in the creative, innovation and high tech industries. But the CBI has also identified a critical lack of skills in the manufacturing, construction and engineering sectors – all of which could be drivers for future growth in the economy. Yet our education system is failing to address these new demands.

This is why Labour is putting renewed emphasis on the importance of vocational education to match the best academic provision, supported by quality apprenticeships. The new technical exam announced today is welcome, but it is a belated gesture towards something we have long argued for. And we will continue to criticise the government’s backward looking curriculum changes, which fail to meet young people’s aspirations and provide the gold standard skills needed to create a modern, thriving economy. It is the least we can do for those talented pupils I met at Holy Family School.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s Shadow Education team in the Lords

Published 4th July 2013

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