Life skills: Why education reform should focus on knowledge of the modern world

This is a guest blog by Fiona Woods, head of human resources Europe at Cognizant.


Fiona Woods.jpgGCSE results, then A-levels, then back to school and now off the university. This is the time of year when academic achievement is most in the headlines, and academia itself comes under a commensurate level of scrutiny. For those students entering their final year of study (and even, increasingly, their penultimate year) it is time to consider where their academic choices will take them once they find themselves in the world of work.


It is also a time of much soul-searching in government, as ministers and their teams contemplate what might be done to make school and academia a better preparation for the world of work and, in the long run, the engine of a more competitive economy.


The importance of schooling to the long-term success of the UK cannot be stressed strongly enough, and any potential reforms should be made with the current and future needs of real businesses in mind.


Increasingly, this means better teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills in schools for two main reasons. Firstly, it will help plug the existing skills gap in this country by supplying more engineers and scientists.  Secondly, increasingly STEM education will be valued by other industries as every industry is becoming more technology intensive, and not less. To progress beyond entry level in almost any industry is to require a basic understanding of the technology that underpins business process and information management, and the capacity to do so is laid down in the early years.


Similarly, university courses of every stamp should make efforts to show how the skills they teach fit into the new business paradigm, where information technology forms the backbone of any business of reasonable size.


In the 1960s, the great question amongst educators and academics was whether the ‘two cultures’ of humanities and science could ever be reconciled and made to understand one another. Now we know that the answer is yes, and they must be. Clearly, not everyone has the aptitude to become a medical researcher, a software engineer, or a data scientist, but all students should do all they can to develop their knowledge of STEM subjects at a basic level as they will be useful in any job in the modern workplace.   


However, one consequence of the pervasiveness of technology in modern business is that job roles and technologies alike are now much more specialised. What that means is that, for a company to work in a cohesive manner (and, indeed, for an industry to be efficient), it is essential to have a body of personnel capable of understanding many different roles and technologies, and communicating their importance to those who may be unfamiliar with them. That requires the traditional iterative and story-telling skills of the humanities specialist but it also requires a solid understanding of how complex technologies function to drive the modern business.


A recent YouGov poll showed that half of regular graduate employers in the UK are not ‘work-ready’, and similar research in the past has cited a lack of commercial awareness as one of the major contributors to this malaise. There are certainly many aspects to this problem, but true commercial awareness in the modern economy is impossible without an understanding of the place of technology in the workings of the business, and that understanding will become increasingly important for school leavers as well as graduates and will better serve the needs of the economy as a whole.

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