Joining up business and education

ian-coulter-CBI2_NEW Ian Coulter is the CBI Northern Ireland Chairman and a managing partner in Tughan’s Solicitors, Belfast. One of CBI Northern Ireland’s policies is to develop collaboration between business and the Executive in addressing issues around youth unemployment and employability skills. The Integrated Education Fund met Ian to discuss the relationships between education, industry and the political sphere.

How would you describe the current relationship between education and business?

There’s room for improvement. Business organisations in the past haven’t tended to get involved early in the system with the result that we have focused too much on university students; we aren’t visible at primary or secondary level to a consistent or meaningful extent. We need to fix that, to increase the profile of business and develop more interaction. In particular we need to increase young people’s awareness of future employment needs and opportunities; not just in terms of what qualifications do you need for ‘job x’ but what the various markets are like: what, realistically are the prospects?

Employers need candidates with specific skills sets. Different sectors will want to bring people along clear, specific pathways. We need to focus pupils at an earlier stage on what direction they are moving in. This is the sort of space where business organisations could play a role but we aren’t there yet.

What about business leaders’ relationship with the Executive; do you feel your voices are heard?

We need the Executive to see that education, business and employment are all part of one picture. We do get to talk to ministers. On subjects like corporation tax or employment law, engagement is good but in other areas there may be a clear business rationale for a policy or course of action, but if there’s a politically-sensitive issue around it, I would sometimes question whether our voice is heard. However, it’s the private sector that will have to deliver growth in our economy over the next decade.

The creation of the ESA board as it stands currently is a case in point. There are no seats reserved for business representation and that’s a missed opportunity. Yet listening to our members there’s an appetite for engagement. We have many members who are involved with schools through boards of governors, offering work experience and so on. But the common mindset which sees business and education as separate has to change.

A shared society is undoubtedly better for business. How can we move towards this?

We need to look at the whole integrated issue much more closely. I don’t see how the government can make an overall strategy for education or for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration without dealing with the fundamentals and integrated education is fundamental. If we set aside the social side ─ which I believe is very important ─ look at the duplication of resources we have at the moment.

Looking at our education system from a business point of view we are concerned, of course, about core skills and courses but these are part of an overall package. The package includes social stability; the link between this and our economic future may not have been obvious to everyone, but the unrest over Christmas and the New Year has shown starkly the relationship between social problems and business problems.

If we’re going to use terms like shared society, that has to include integrated schools. How can we achieve one without another? From a hard-nosed economic point of view, integration makes sense and it also represents social progress, which will make economic growth easier. CBI is very committed to this.

agendaNI-CBI-2[1] Given our current segregated schools system, are we preparing pupils adequately for the diverse world and diverse workplace which await them?

I’d be cautious about saying there’s a direct correlation between school ethos and employability in this respect – so much is down to the way children are taught. Workplaces are becoming more diverse and if you’re not experiencing diversity earlier, that means you have to make an adjustment. Employability includes soft skills; inter-personal skills such as meeting customers, suppliers, negotiating; the integration point – I think a culturally mixed education broadens perspective, which is a good thing but alone it isn’t enough.

We have to think globally. I was recently on the Invest NI trip to China and people should see what is happening there in terms of where we are; export is the key to growth and the business languages of the future, for example Mandarin, will be crucial. There are huge opportunities out there if people are willing to think in terms of larger scope.

So you are concerned that whilst we have good academic achievements, we may not actually be laying the right foundations in terms of skills?

A stronger relationship between business and education would help and we’d like to see a joined-up approach where education, employment and learning and businesses are all part of the same picture. From the feedback we are getting, I’m not sure that careers advice is working in schools or whether there is enough “real time” input from business as to current conditions and prospects. Students need a good sense of what is happening on the ground; they need to be aware of where the skills gaps are and what the market is like for their chosen job.

In addition, are students made aware of the detail of our long term Economic Strategy and which sectors our Executive see as the future? CBI Northern Ireland are also not sure that the right subjects are being taught. Only three schools in Northern Ireland, for example, offer Computer Science at A-level. And despite the good academic record, we’re also concerned at the level of under-achievement recorded.

Scenes of unrest in Belfast and beyond have been broadcast internationally. How do we counteract the damage that must cause?

We must keep our perspective. It’s a setback but not all the way back to square one. There is plenty going on in the background which is good. The recent diplomatic and trade delegations from Japan and Kurdistan, for example. We can still show overseas visitors a very positive view of Northern Ireland. We have plenty of openings this year to exploit. I believe the G8 can “clean the slate” for us. We can get over the current difficulties but they simply can’t be repeated: our politicians must do whatever they can to ensure this.

You are optimistic, then?

Things are changing; the will is there, education and business could and must talk more. We’ve met the Education Minister, we are closely watching progress on various education initiatives and our message is that we have a number of very successful business leaders who’d be more than happy to get more engaged in education. There is a lot of goodwill there that could be leveraged.

For further information please contact the IEF at:
Tel: 028 9033 0031

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