School visits should be a must for employers in North, says ex-Minister

Lord O'Neill, left says northern schools should be a priority for new Education Secretary Damian Hinds
Lord O'Neill, left says northern schools should be a priority for new Education Secretary Damian Hinds
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Employers in the North should be morally obliged to go into local schools to make sure young people know about the range of possible jobs available to them, an influential former Treasury Minister has claimed.

Lord Jim O’Neill, one of the architects of the Northern Powerhouse concept, said many firms were failing to grasp the importance of going into schools and explaining what they do to students, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

The vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), which represents business and civic leaders, said Britain ought to follow the example of Germany, where companies spend or are responsible for a fifth of the national education budget.

This week, a major report by the NPP urged businesses to mentor at least as many northern schoolchildren as they have employees in the region, a move which could benefit at least 900,000 young people aged 11 or older.

Speaking yesterday at a major conference in Leeds on education and skills, Lord O’Neill said the gap which needed to be bridged to reach this point was “huge”, in part due to the traditional approach taken to teaching and education. He pointed to the post-industrial former cotton and wool-producing towns in West Yorkshire as an example of areas where not enough employers were engaging with local schools.

“How do many of these kids, particularly in more disadvantaged areas, have a clue about what is out there?,” he said.

It is a bit presumptuous from education providers and companies that these young people have their minds open from the right age about the range of possibilities they will have.

Lord O’Neill

“It is a bit presumptuous from education providers and companies that these young people have their minds open from the right age about the range of possibilities they will have.

“Why not oblige employers to regard it is as part of their DNA? There are many companies that do, but not nearly enough. In Germany it is part of their culture.

“We are implying that companies should morally oblige themselves to do it, but maybe it is not crazy for the Government to consider guidelines or maybe consider a policy step on it, because it is really important”.

Lord O’Neill was one of the speakers at yesterday’s Northern Powerhouse Conference 2018: Education and Skills, held in Leeds. Other speakers included former head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw.

The aim of the event was to bring together key decision makers, MPs, business and elected leaders, as well as work and skills providers from across the North, to build consensus on how to deliver world-class education and job opportunities.

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, told the conference that like many other places in the North, the city had seen “significant private sector job growth but a hollowing out of the labour market and growing skills gaps and shortages”.

She said: “Investing in our people is a priority for the North and our ambition is for a stronger and inclusive economy where all our citizens are equipped with skills that enable them to benefit from growth.”

Coun Blake added: “We want to see the North’s economy continue to grow in strength alongside additional investment and solutions that are specifically tailored to the North.

“But we face the challenge of a highly centralised, complex and increasingly fragmented skills and employment support system.

“Local leadership and control is essential to providing a coherent and accessible local offer that works with business to create a highly skilled workforce ready to access more and better jobs.”

The NPP’s report this week argues that there is still a significant North-South divide in education.

Data shows the average GCSE score across eight subjects in 2016/17 among teenagers across the North was 45.1, compared to an average of 48.6 in London.

Ed Cox, of the IPPR North think-tank, said the report “highlights opportunities where we can learn from the successes of London”.

But he said: “We must remember that the London Challenge received as much as £40m per annum and, as the NAHT reported this week, under the new funding formula, per pupil funding in Barnsley is £4,729 compared with £7,840 in Hackney.”

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