Neil Carmichael: now is the time for business to ‘step up’ on behalf of young people

by Chris Jackson

Neil Carmichael


Sustainable learning is a must have in a world battered by COVID19, where uncertainties are the norm; technology drives exponential change; society and the economy have become increasingly atomised in nature; and, international relationships are, increasingly, tense and mercantile. 

“Sustainable” is a much-used word, sometimes with values implied or attached, but longevity, durability and resilience all included. For education, it is all about laying foundations, learning to learn, ‘making well-considered choices’, proactive learning, combining knowledge with skills and being responsive to new situations. In short, sustainable learning is a linear process, starting from as early as possible and morphing into lifelong learning with embedded and evolving skills always being at the individual’s disposal. 

Sustainable learning today must reflect the new world – even if parts of it are inclined to go backwards – because nations are interconnected. Of course, an interconnected world does not mean everybody is connected; in England, the levels of social deprivation in some regions and within many cities are shocking and usually reflect poor economic productivity. True sustainable learning would help to tackle poverty and many of its causes.  

Another facet of today’s world is the twin need for individuals to be ‘work ready’ and, by extension, adaptable. Business and professional organisations occasionally complain about the lack of work readiness of candidates for employment, often citing the absence of communication skills, limited ability to be creative and low levels of motivation as causes for concern.  

There is a combination of underlying causes of the disconnect between students leaving education and the job market. The narrowness of the curriculum is often debated within this context with the funnelling down to three or four often comparable ‘A’ Levels being a common source of concern, often exacerbated by the impact of ‘unintended consequences’ as schools, fighting for position in league tables, might encourage the university route rather than vocational and training courses.  

The lack of work experience or even familiarity with the options available hamper the student when making subject selections. The scarcity of consistent and properly resourced careers advice is notorious and, so far, not adequately addressed. This is where business must step in. 

This author has visited the Porsche car factory in Lower Saxony. It occupies a site once used for producing huge pump engines for the Soviet Union but today there is an air of efficiency, productivity and modernity. One of the keys to the success of this factory and, indeed, the business, is the relentless focus on the importance of the employee; so much so, schools, colleges and universities are part of the supply chain. This is an example to emulate because it demonstrates the role employers must take in delivering sustainable learning. 

Sustainable learning helps to provide the individual with the tools to develop his or her career. Knowledge is necessary but it is not sufficient; being able to apply knowledge depends on skills and these are honed both in formal learning settings but also by practice and example. We must do all we can to create the framework for young people to climb towards their goals. 

Neil Carmichael was Member of Parliament for Stroud (2010-17), serving on the Education Select Committee throughout period and latterly as Chair, and took the Antarctic Act 2013 through Parliament. He was chair of the Pearson UK Commission on Sustainable Learning for Work, Life and a Changing Economy.  

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