I was very keen to come along today first to congratulate you on your Report, but also to thank the CBI, you individually, and through you business more generally for what you are already doing to support the Government’s efforts to help raise educational standards and prepare young people for work.
The Report has lots of excellent case studies which reflect the very wide range of ways in which employers are making a major contribution, and for all of those a very big thank you.
It also looks at ways that business might be able to do even more in future, and I would like to say a few words about that. It is a huge area, so in the time I have, I would like to concentrate on just five areas where I think that business can help us raise educational standards.
The first way I think you can help is to run your businesses well, make profits, pay dividends and pay your taxes. To my mind, that is your most important task. Without a flourishing private sector, we cannot provide good public services. I know it sounds like a statement of the obvious, but I think it is a crucial and fundamental point of principle that merits restating.
I also believe that the most powerful reason for you to become involved in education is because it is in your business interest to do so, not because you think Government expects it of you.
The second way business can help is by becoming more involved in the educational debate and speaking up - as you are doing in your Report.
I have heard employers say in the past that they don’t want to be too outspoken on education in case they come across as ‘too political’. Well, I think you should be outspoken. Of course education is about a lot more than giving young people skills for the workplace. If that was all that education was about, it would be a deeply depressing, impoverished vision of education.
I have always believed that education is a good in itself, not simply a means to an end. But that said, employers are the people in the front line, who see what our schools and universities are producing, and what those young people have learned. You know whether candidates can read and write fluently, turn up on time, and know what it is to work in a team or take instructions from a manager. You get particular insight into what children are learning at school.
So you should make your views known, tell us what you think about the curriculum, about STEM subjects, modern languages, our exams system, and so on. We may not always do what you want, but we want to make sure that we know what you think.
The third way in which I think business can play an even bigger role in education is, as your Report argues, through a greater engagement with academies and Free Schools. There have been some outstanding examples of individual businessmen (and women) doing wonderful things to transform the life chances of thousands of young people. I am thinking of figures like Phil Harris and his academies or the outstanding Ark Academies.
They have made an enormous contribution to improving people’s lives; but of course their example also acts as a spur to youngsters looking for role models beyond the usual footballers and TV celebrities.
When they first became involved with academies, I know there was a lot of suspicion, and indeed hostility, towards the notion that successful business people could possibly know anything about education. Some questioned their motives.
But today there are thousands of young people - students at academies - who have every reason to be grateful to them, as I am. The benefits to pupils can be measured by improved school results - three times faster this year at GCSE than maintained schools - and improved life chances. So yes, there is a big role that employers can play in becoming academy sponsors.
And here I want to pay tribute to the previous Government and to one of my predecessors, Lord Adonis, in particular for the work they did in establishing the Academies programme. I am happy to say that we are building on what they started - and Tony Blair’s autobiography is very interesting on academies by the way.
One part of the Academies Act is to do with converting outstanding schools to academies, and that is where a lot of media and political attention has been focused. We have got off to a good start with 140 schools already lined up to convert to academy status in a few short weeks. But the Act also made it easier for us to convert underperforming schools to academy status, and before long we will be setting out next steps on that. Those schools will provide a major new opportunity for business to become involved either as lead or co-sponsors. I would very much like to talk to the CBI and to individual businesses to discuss how you might become involved.
Some of you might like to think in particular about getting involved with the new University Technical Colleges being championed by Lord Baker and the Baker-Dearing Trust. UTCs will give 14- to 19-year-olds the opportunity to take a high-quality, rigorous technical course of study. The Secretary of State and I are great fans of the idea and I think it is the kind of marriage between business and education that I think we all want to see.
On the specific point in the Report about federations: yes, we welcome federations. Schools supporting each other and learning from each other in a federation is a thoroughly positive thing, as is the scope for economies of scale and the provision of central services. So I see a big opportunity there for business to become involved as I do in their becoming providers of educational services to new Free Schools, just as they are already major providers of services to maintained schools and LAs. The Academy Trust itself though must not be profit-making.
That brings me to the fourth way in which I believe the world of business can help the world of education, and that is by having your say on how we should allocate schools capital in the future. You are experienced at getting difficult jobs done quickly and cost effectively, which is one of the reasons why the world of business is well represented on the Capital Review team. If any of you have views on capital, please let us have them.
The end of Building Schools for the Future does not mean the end of school capital, although I hope it will mean the end of a process which was slow, bureaucratic and - I am afraid - wasteful.
My fifth and final point relates to the way in which your staff individually can contribute - either by mentoring, by working directly with schools, or by becoming a school governor. I know how much individuals contribute already as mentors and governors, and how much they themselves feel enriched by the experience - quite apart from the good they do for children and schools.
And I am particularly keen to see what more we can do to attract people with business experience onto the governing bodies of local schools. What barriers are there are present? Are there changes we need to make so that becoming a governor seems more attractive or manageable? How can we help governors focus on the strategic issues of running a school and not get bogged down in too much detail or box-ticking? Answers please on a postcard to me.
The title of your Report, ‘Fulfilling Potential’, is a fair description of the business we are all in. Anyone involved in education knows that the most heartbreaking thing is seeing a child’s potential squandered. And I know that people in business spend every day trying to maximise the potential of their ideas, their products, and their workforce.
So we should work together, and I am very grateful for all the work the business community is already doing in education. Long may it continue.
There’s a great deal in this Report with which I wholeheartedly agree - and much food for thought on the subject of innovation, flexibility and continuous learning, among other things. I hope that in the coming months we will have many opportunities to talk about how we can work even more closely together, and please, let me have any suggestions as to how you think we could do better.