The big debate

The big debate in education at the moment is whether GCSE examinations should be continued, replaced by other exams or should be scrapped altogether. We arranged for two of our clients to be involved in the discussion, St Mary’s School, Cambridge and International Baccalaureate were featured in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday 22 August highlighting their views.  Educational establishments, organisations and politicians have all been involved in discussing whether exams in UK schools are fit for purpose for a number of years, yet the debate continues.

In recent weeks the national newspapers have been packed with conflicting stories on the success of state schools versus private schools, disputing The Telegraph’s headline: “state pupils put private schools in the shade”. This headline was purportedly based on an analysis of A Level results showing that private school students were being outclassed by top performing state schools.  The Guardian begs to differ – according to the chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) The Telegraph has compared the top 500 state Sixth Forms with almost every private school in the country that offers A Levels (amounting to almost 500), not a fair comparison after all.

Fuelling what is already a raging fire is a think tank’s claims that schools should be “fined” if their pupils fail to get at least a C grade in English and Mathematics at GCSE.  Policy Exchange, the think tank responsible for the report, believes that the money gained from fining schools should go towards teaching the thousands of pupils who will have to sit those exams again under new government legislation.

So, not only do schools have the pressure of competing in the league tables and being compared against their state or independent ‘equivalents’ but they now have monetary fines to contend with too.

While we welcome this lively debate we can’t help but wonder when discussion will finally translate into action.

Educating Business for Women Leaders

The on-going debate about women on boards confounds the Conscious Communications team. 

Angela Merkel’s well publicised campaign to increase the number of German companies appointing women to senior posts is currently heading for a quota of 30% by 2020.  Our own Vince Cable has said he’ll look again at quotas if the target of 25% female representation on boards is not met by 2015.

Of course there should be as many women on boards as there are men but the thought that laws should be put in place to ensure that this is the case seems at odds with the net required result: successful businesses and a thriving economy. 

The central issue is one of discrimination and there is absolutely no doubt that women have been discriminated against for many reasons throughout history – employment is just one of the many arenas in which this discrimination has played out.  Extremely capable women have been blocked from rising up the ranks of male dominated companies and there have been many widely publicised cases where salaries for female employees have been unacceptably low compared with male counterparts. 

Culture and geography have also played a major role in women’s ability to achieve their potential in business.  Internationally, women account for only 11% of all board positions: Europe has the highest percentage, with Norway, Sweden and Finland at the top of the league and US lagging way behind.  This is despite the fact that up to 20% of the growth in US productivity in the past 50 years has been attributed to the inclusion of marginalised groups, including women, in the work force.

Looking at an industry close to our hearts, research has shown repeatedly that gender diverse executive teams demonstrate strong CSR performance.  But men still dominate senior CSR roles in US.  The GreenBiz 2011 salary survey found that two thirds of senior sustainability roles in large companies were held by men.

But are laws really able to impact on this discrimination?  It’s a little like legislating to stop a playground bully – the act itself will not stop, it will simply become better disguised.  No, the answer, we believe, lies not in legislation but in EDUCATION.

A recent article in the Independent cited a report showing that the average British CEO is a 53 year old male with a background in finance.  Apparently 52% of CEOs have a finance or accountancy background; only 8% have a background in marketing or advertising – no comment from Conscious Communications on this statistic!

However and wherever a woman starts on her career journey, it can’t be avoided that if she is to have a family it is likely that she will have a career break of some length. In fast moving, ever changing industries like our own, even a short career break will require her to embark on a steep learning curve to catch up when she returns.  Here, again, education is the key and Conscious Communications wonders whether investment in provision for training and CPD for women, enabling them to compete on a level playing field, would be a better use of government resources, than enforcement of legislation.  

History has taught women that they can overcome adversity if they put up enough of a fight.  There are enough great modern-day female role models to demonstrate what can be achieved.  But, we believe that all self-respecting women in business want nothing more than to know they have earned their place in the business hierarchy, not achieved it by leapfrogging capable men to the role through the exercising of legal muscle.  There’s no satisfaction or achievement in that.

#educationforfuture

January, and those of us with teenage children know that we’re already into exam season.  In fact, exam season seems to be perpetual these days.  But, from next year, January and February will be a little quieter for the examining bodies, when the opportunity for 17 and 18 year olds to retake A Level modules will no longer exist.  Yes, it’s all change again for UK education.

At Conscious Communications we’re privileged to work with one of the best private schools in the country and through our work have developed an understanding of the issues and politics involved in the national education agenda.  We have also been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss pressing education issues with teachers, academics and business leaders, most recently in a series of podcasts with education thought leaders as a preview to a national education conference we are organising in Cambridge next month.

Teachers are not at all shy  of voicing their opinions and indeed, they are some of the most prolific Tweeters, using the social media platform to stage lively discussions and debates at all times of day and night.  There are even several public Twitter forums which take place each week at set times, where teachers and educationalists get together, using hash tags such as #sltchat or #ukedchat, to discuss pre-agreed themes and questions, often resulting in heated voicing of opinions.

The major issues currently are those relating to the review of the National Curriculum and the government’s consultation on the future for assessment in the UK.  Teachers, seemingly universally, believe that the current system is letting children and schools down.  They are brimming with ideas for how an effective system could and should be structured and yet their frustration that the educated and informed opinions of teachers are going unheeded by the decision makers, are widely voiced. 

Something that appears to have been missed by the decision makers in their reform of the system is exploration of the fundamental question of what is the purpose of education and learning for today and tomorrow.  Not, what has the purpose of education been in the past – it is surely ridiculous that in the fast moving, digital and increasingly ‘global’ world and workplace, there is talk of a return to basics. 

Ask teachers what the purpose of learning is and, we believe, you’ll receive a range of responses which mostly focus on giving students critical and inquisitive thinking skills and equipping them to achieve ‘fulfilling’ and socially aware futures.  Many teachers we have spoken to talk about the IB learner profile and its relevance for young people entering the adult world today.  IB says that its programme is designed to ‘develop internationally minded people who, recognising their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world’.  The words IB uses to describe the type of qualities they work to instil in students are: ‘inquirers’, ‘knowledgeable’, ‘thinkers’, ‘communicators’, ‘principled’, ‘open-minded’, ‘caring’, ‘risk-takers’, ‘balanced’, ‘reflective’.  Sounds about right for the world they will face!

Educating human capital for the preservation of natural capital

Awareness of the value of natural capital is increasingly important in the commercial world, where efficiencies and effective use of resources are under scrutiny. 

The concept of ‘natural capital’ has a long history but it is only in recent years that it has carried a real weight of importance.  As early as 1937 Roosevelt referenced an article which talked about ‘balancing the budget of our resources’, a very clear reference to what we know as natural capital today.

In its true sense, natural capital refers to the natural assets we utilise for economic production.  There are three main categories of this: natural resource stocks, land and ecosystems, all of which are essential, not only to the long-term sustainability of economic development but also, of course, to the sustainability of all forms of life as we know them, including ourselves.

It is encouraging to know that so many groups and organisations now exist to examine the issues relating to the depletion of natural resources and the preservation of natural capital.  The Natural Capital Initiative (NCI) is one such forum, involving scientists, policy-makers and industry in discussing how to support the development of science, policy and practice, in-line with an ‘ecosystem approach’ to decision making, where natural good and services are valued.  The NCI has established a schedule of events and publications which aim to communicate its findings but how does all of this worthwhile discussion really translate into action?

Defra’s own Natural Capital Committee evolved from the Natural Environment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature’, published in June 2011.  It is designed to ‘ensure that government has a better informed understanding of the value of Natural Capital, and will help it to prioritise actions to support and improve the UK’s natural assets’.   With the government’s Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) already in place, we’re not sure what else the Committee will contribute that isn’t already known on a macro scale?  We hope it will be more than just further discussion and debate. 

One good thing, however, to come from the Committee is the establishment of Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs), of which there are now 48 across the country.  Our understanding is that these will focus on three priorities: sustainable land use and management; green economic growth; quality of life and local health and wellbeing.  We are pleased to see that Greater Cambridgeshire is listed among the 48 and are looking to see how our team might contribute to its efforts in the coming months.

For our own business and all others in the service sector, the key to success is our people and, although technically classified as human capital, not natural capital, there is clearly much cross-over. The role of human capital in economic development, productivity growth and innovation must not be underestimated either, nor must the role of human capital in the future preservation of our natural capital.  Education is, therefore, surely at the very heart of the issue and the development of a national education system that builds knowledge and life skills in young people, which are relevant to the future of our global digital economy, is essential – here-in lies another topic close to our hearts with the work we are involved in with the Stephen Perse Foundation

What’s your ‘calling’?

Through our work in education we are often drawn into discussions about careers and the future of assessment in UK schools.  Following one such discussion the question of terminology arose and plunged us into thought about the expectations of young people and how, over the generations, the descriptors we use for education and qualifications have changed with these expectations.

For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, a vocation is something that a person feels a particular ‘calling’ to pursue and, in the process of doing so, may be lucky enough to make a living for themselves.  The dictionary confirms this with: ‘a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action, especially a divine call to the religious life’ and explains that the word originates from the Middle English vocacioun, Anglo-French vocaciun and Latin vocation.

For us then, a vocation is distinct from a career by the addition of the ‘calling’ bit.  Without this we are left with only the element that makes a living.  Having said this, we all know many people who have had and are having long and successful careers which they have grown to enjoy and sometimes even love.  However, they weren’t necessarily ‘love at first sight’ so, by our definition, they are careers and not vocations.

With this in mind, what surprises us is the modern use of the word ‘vocational’ to broadly describe less academic professional paths.  Today the term ‘vocational’ seems to be used to categorise job choices that would have previously been simply called ‘the trades’ – construction, accountancy, mechanics, and so on.   In days gone by you were either in the ‘professions’ or in the ‘trades’, it was pretty black and white.  But in the same way that so many other boundaries have become blurred and broken, the meaning of these words has changed.  

The dictionary definition of ‘vocational’ is ‘pertaining to or instruction/guidance in a ‘vocation’.  So the question is, when and how did a trade become a vocation?  For some people we’re certain a trade really is a vocation but all trades surely can’t be generally grouped in this way.

The history of vocational education dates back to the vision for technical schools contained in the Butler 1944 Education Act.  Through the 60s, 70s and 80s the availability of technical courses and apprenticeships grew and organisations like the City & Guilds were established.  From what we can find, the word ‘vocational’ first appeared officially in the mix with the announcement of the Technical & Vocational Employment Initiative in 1982 and from this stemmed what we recognise as NVQs and so on. 

So what else was happening in education during this period?  Margaret Thatcher was rewarding schools for academic performance with extra funding; corporal punishment was banned in state schools; low pay and the stress of the national curriculum was fuelling low morale and teacher strikes.  There are clearly many complexities to the evolution of education and the language we use to describe elements of that mix but we wonder if there is any correlation between the modern use of the word ‘vocational’, as a glamorisation of the traditional ‘trades’, and the 30 years of reform and restructure we have seen through various governments which continues today?

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