Education is more important than politics

My son was born in February 2000. That may seem an unimportant fact, and in truth it is, other than it places him close to being born at the turn of the millennium. At the time of his birth, the Secretary of State for Education was David Blunkett.

As he now approaches his 17th birthday (my son, not Blunkett) and enters in to the last stage of his secondary education, Justine Greening is the holder of the same position.

What I find quite remarkable is that by the time he reaches the end of his studies in spring 2018, and assuming no further changes, there will have been a total of NINE holders of this position. At present, the average tenure of the person responsible for education, during his lifetime, falls short of two years.

It isn’t an unusual pattern, in fact you have to go back to 1918 and Herbert Fisher to find anyone holding the post for longer than five years. To provide comparison, the average tenure of a CEO is somewhere close to ten years.

It seems unsurprising that the education sector is failing to deliver the outcomes required when the leadership, direction and ethos change with such frequency. Particularly when education policy is often tainted by the personal experiences of the senior person in charge – the “it didn’t do me any harm” effect.

When interest rates were placed in the hands of the Monetary Policy Committee in 1997, the rationale was to remove political interference and to focus instead on long-term stability and growth. What we see now is a group of experts, bringing different views, coming together to achieve a consensus for the benefit of the country’s economy as a whole.

There feels little, more important to the future prosperity of the country than the education system. Having spent time in and around schools over the last twenty years, the biggest complaint is not perhaps what one might believe – funding, but the overwhelming sense of disorientation and fatigue caused by the multiple initiatives and changes in direction from above.

If we are serious in reinventing the education system in the country, if we believe that it has a fundamental role to play in the future success of the country and the economy, then it requires us to think differently about the way in which policy is set and how we create a single sustainable and stable approach to our education system.

The obvious, but perhaps unpalatable, answer is to take policy out of the hands of government and to place it in the hands of a panel of experts drawn from academia, education, business and other areas and overseen by a cross party group of MPs and with overall accountability to the Secretary of State. Build consensus on our education policy for the long-term, remove personal bias and create stability.

The reality is, that it would take a brave and courageous government to hand away one of their main political bargaining chips. But in turn that begs the question;

Is our education system there to serve the careers of politicians, or to serve the country?

You don’t need a degree to work in HR

If you went to University, let me ask you a question:

How much of the taught subject matter are you using in your work?

I asked myself the same question and the answer is “very little”.

I am sure that there are certain professions, certain vocations where the content matter of a university degree is a necessity. And yet, in the majority of roles, I’m not so sure.

The CIPD released a brilliant piece of research last week highlighting the expansion of Higher Education in the UK and the resultant increase in graduates working in historically “non-graduate” roles.

There are several hypotheses to explain this, some with positive outcomes, some without.

Two things immediately strike me as being highly culpable in this trend,

  • the homogenisation of higher education post the 1992 reforms
  • the insistence of businesses to require degrees for non-degree roles

I’ll leave the first for people better placed to comment on the education sector (although you can check out this brilliant assessment from Peter Scott as a start).

I want to talk about the second point.

Why do I think we ask for degrees?

  • We’re lazy. We ask for a degree when no degree is necessary because simply it makes life easier.
  • We lack creativity and fall foul of unconscious bias. We have degrees and therefore it must be a requirement.

Don’t believe me? I ran a search on Changeboard of the HR jobs that specifically called out a degree as a requirement in the ad and there were over 170, (I don’t mean to pick on Changeboard, I did the same search on HR Magazine and got a similar return).

With over 20 years working in the profession, I’m yet to come across a role where a degree is of critical value. And of course, the irony is that in the case of HR, the degree will often be in a subject matter that probably isn’t relevant to the role.

We’re stuck in the past and assuming that a degree in some way differentiates the ability of the candidate, but more importantly we are sending out a message that you have to have a degree to work in HR. A pattern that is replicated across numerous other roles and professions.

There are certain life skills, there are certain intellectual processes that do come from study, I complete get that. But can they be obtained in other ways? Of course.

Our duty as a profession is to challenge the preconceptions of requirements, to throw our doors open more widely and to make our assessment and selection processes based on genuine capability, talent and potential. Not on meaningless qualifications.

But if we can’t do that within our own recruitment, what chance have we got in other areas of the business? We need to get our own house in order and be ruthless with our own professional approach.

Let me put it simply,

You don’t need a degree to work in HR.

So let’s stop saying you do.

Education is too important for politicians

I’ve written before about our supply chain.

It always strikes me as bizarre that as a profession we talk about the value of people, but we seldom discuss, in real detail, the production of the resource that is central to our being.

Education.

Anyone who has been involved in education in any form will know that the one thing that defines our education system is constant change.

We plan our education policy on cycles of a maximum of five years. And yet our educational cycle is a minimum of 14 years. Which means that as a child, as a student, you could easily have four or five different educational policies in place during your education.

Different targets

Different focus areas

Different  inspection regimes

Different syllabuses (syllabi?)

Different exams

And the changes introduce unnecessary drag and inefficiency in to the supply chain as teachers and leaders attempt to understand, assimilate and implement the requirements of the latest policy.

But not only does that inefficiency mean that we’re not maximising the return on investment in educational resource, it also means that we are providing confused and often contradictory messages to both students and parents.

If we are serious about skills and education providing a competitive advantage to the UK, we need to take a longer term approach that builds consistently towards a future skills agenda and underpins our economic success.

Which means taking it out of the hands of politicians and raising it above the quagmire of vote winning, electioneering soundbites and delivering it into the hands of expert educationalists and economists.

I wrote a piece for HR Magazine recently on this, but simply put, if we want to be serious about our role in the strategic direction of our organisations and United Kingdom Plc, it needs to start with us taking education seriously.

So when the canvassers come and stand on your doorstep, don’t just ask them what their policy on education is, ask them how they’re going to ensure long-term stability in education.

Regardless of who is in power.

A letter to Penny

Dear Penny,

I wanted to write to thank you for your letter. I realise that replying to it twenty-two years after receipt is probably considered bad form. But then, at the time, I wasn’t ready to reply. And it was only this weekend that I was going through some boxes that I came across it and read and appreciated it.

photo 2

photo 1

Not missing the irony that, of course, this week people will be getting their own A-level results. And some of them will feel like I felt, back in 1992.

The strange thing about education, about our system is that we place so much importance on that very short period of time. You know, you and a few of the other teachers were absolutely right. I needed to go, I needed to get away and I needed to see what I could make of life.

At the time I was too obsessed with the opportunities that I saw diminishing before my eyes, to realise the world of opportunity that nonetheless awaited me. “But I was supposed to…” was the phrase that kept on going through my mind.

But life isn’t about “supposed to” or “should have”, life is about “can do” and “did do”. It took me the best part of twenty years to realise that. Before then I was too busy wanting to stick two fingers up to the past and show people I could be a success. I guess in some ways I’m grateful that this was my reaction to failure, rather than to get subsumed by it. Some people do.

The simple answer to your question though, is that I’m doing well. Life has been good to me, we’ve been successful and healthy and happy together. I’ve got to do things that I would never have dreamt would have been possible in that moment when I opened those results and saw the letters C,D&E. I’ve worked in amazing companies with some of the brightest people in their sectors. And together we’ve repeatedly made history.

And it makes me think that this week, like me 22 years ago, there are going to be people all over the country that are going to feel the world collapse under their feet as they look at the letters that they have on their screens (what happened to paper?)

My message to them is to, “go, get away and make what they can of life. Focus on what you can do and will do, not what you can’t do or won’t do. Your world feels limited, reduced and cruelly diminished. But your talents aren’t. You are everything that you were before and more. And you will be even greater still”.

With a bit of luck, they’ll have had teachers that cared for them, that nurtured them, that educated them. Not to pass exams, but (like I did) to help them grow. I hope they go out there and prove you right and the system wrong. I want them to be focussed, be successful and be happy.

Thanks for teaching me this Penny. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise and to learn, but maybe that’s why I didn’t do as well as I wanted. I’m a little bit slow. I hope life treated you well and I’m sorry we lost contact. Who knows, maybe the connected world of the web will rectify that.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Neil

PS. You’re too kind about the poetry, it was always a bit crap. But I guess I’m still writing, so that’s ok?

NB. If anyone happens to know the whereabouts of Penny Salkield, it would be my absolute pleasure to thank her in person.