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UK needs to match Finland’s education system to drive economic growth, says CBI chief

Businesses need to work with school and college heads to equip young people for the workplace and for life, CBI Director-General John Cridland said last week.

Read John Cridland's speech to the ASCL >>

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders, in London, he said matching educational attainment in Finland could add 1% growth a year to the UK economy.

He said education standards needed to be rigorous – but had to give students the “rounded and grounded” attitudes and skills employers needed.

Mr Cridland called for the focus of secondary education to shift from exams at 16 to 18 in the long-term – with a new gold-standard vocational exam at 18 to be on a par with A-levels.

And he committed businesses to working with schools to help every student achieve their full potential.

His speech comes after the CBI called for a radical shake up of the education system – from nurseries to sixth form in last November’s report, First Steps – A New Approach For Our Schools.

In his speech, Mr Cridland said:

On education driving economic growth

“With all eyes now on rebalancing our economy away from the debt driven years of consumption, toward a greater contribution from investment and trade, our nation’s key asset for a future of sustained growth is education. In our ever-increasingly volatile, hyper-connected and globalised world, the sort of education, skills, and training we provide needs to be decisive.

“If we raised our attainment level to somewhere even close to the levels achieved in Finland, we could add one percentage point a year on growth, over the lifetime of a child born today. That’s gold dust in our economy where growth has been flat over the past year, and the $64,000 question is – ‘how will Britain grow’?”.

On the purpose of education

“We need an education system which focuses on helping young people to be rigorous, rounded and grounded. That should be the litmus test of how successful our schools are.

“We spend more on education than many of our competitors, yet half of our poorest children don’t achieve expected levels at 11 in reading, writing and maths, and then don’t catch up in secondary school because they’re already too far behind.

 “We need to state clearly the elements of a successful outcome for schools. A balance of core and enabling subjects, embracing the personal qualities and attributes which young people need. I think Michael Gove’s recent announcements on exam reform are an opportunity to build this.

On accountability

“The CBI is calling for a shift to new style Ofsted reports. Headline performance measures should, of course, assess the quality of teaching and the academic results of a school, but they can do more than that.”

On strengthening exams

“In modernising the pathways students take in their journey towards the world of work it makes sense – over time – to make exams at 18 the peak assessment point, with external assessment at 16 an important milestone towards that.

“Alongside traditional exams at 18, we should embrace new gold-standard vocational A-levels which would ensure that high-quality non-academic routes get the credit they deserve. Higher apprenticeships, which offer entry at 16, could also be fully aligned in this design.

 “The CBI’s proposals would allow teachers more creativity, leave leaders freer to lead, and steer students to be more inquisitive, rounded and grounded people that businesses want to recruit.”


The CBI’s First Steps – A New Approach For Our Schools last November called for:

Early Years

  • The Government to target structured childcare provision in areas where educational performance is low, as this is one of the best ways to raise attainment;
  • Raising the quality of pre-schools by aspiring to having at least one person with Qualified Teacher Status;
  • The Government to look at tax support and childcare regulation, including shifting support to parents in the early years.

Teaching and School Governance

  • A shift away from exam league tables to new Ofsted reports which assess academic rigour and the broader behaviours and attitudes that young people need to get on in life;
  • Every teacher to have greater freedom to tailor their teaching to cater for the needs of each child;
  • Headteachers to be given full control of performance assessment, reward, improvement plans and where necessary dismissal – and support to use them effectively;
  • A new commitment from business and community organisations to support schools by providing role models, advice and experience.

Primary Schools

  • An overhaul of the primary curriculum to be based on clearly-defined goals for literacy, numeracy, science and computer science that stretch students more broadly;
  • A review of the school transfer age procedures to ensure that young people do not drift in the vital switch period from primary to secondary school;
  • More specialist teachers, especially in science and computer science.

Exam Reform

  • Strengthened A-Levels to be used alongside new gold standard vocational A-levels as the summative point of the education system at 18;
  • Individual learning plans to 18 designed to deliver a high-quality education for every child;
  • A move away from GCSEs to new assessments aimed at supporting student decision-making about subject choices and career paths. These could be undertaken at 14 or 16, including a mix of exams and regular assessment.


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