My Lords, I want to talk about business and skills. In doing so, I am conscious that this contribution could just as easily have been made in the education debate—indeed, given the hour, it almost was. However, I am equally conscious that the education debate will probably once again be dominated by finance, “Do schools have enough money?”, and even more by structure, “Do we have enough grammar schools, academies, free schools and technical schools?”. These are not insignificant issues, but my concern, and that of many business colleagues I meet, is that we spend nowhere near as much time talking about educational outcomes—in other words, the skills, competencies and attitudes that our education system needs to develop.
My particular concern is that we fail to prioritise the skills that business needs if it is to fuel a thriving economy in the face of the Brexit challenge. The time to address that is now, in this gracious Speech, and not after a Brexit deal has been done. Perhaps the skill which business needs most from our young people is enterprise, but enterprise is rarely something that our existing education system seriously addresses or prioritises.
I declare as a non-pecuniary interest that I chair the Bristol Business School at the University of the West of England. We hope to launch shortly a centre for enterprise. However, there are currently very few such initiatives. Sir Tom Hunter established a centre for entrepreneurship at Strathclyde, and Sir Anthony Seldon has set up an entrepreneurs centre at Buckingham, where he is vice-chancellor. But as I said, those initiatives are few and far between.
Equally, for young people leaving school, there is no formal vocational training route for those wishing to establish their own business, become entrepreneurs or even be self-employed, yet the small and medium-sized enterprise market accounts for 99% of all private sector business in the UK. For a young person to go straight from school to running their own business is a huge step, and most could not take the financial and emotional risk without proper training and support. Maybe the apprenticeship system could help fill that void.
Enterprise is also a subject area that could and should feature more strongly in schools. Again, there are few good examples of that. Sir Rod Aldridge has set up “Creates” centres in all his academies to enable students and others in those communities to start businesses in the schools, and these centres provide entrepreneurial training for all pupils. I know that Sir Rod is also interested in developing an entrepreneur apprenticeship scheme so that apprentices could achieve a level 4 standard while running their own business.
So my question is: why does enterprise get so little attention in our education system? In my time, now long ago, as Permanent Secretary at the then Department for Education and Employment, we began to see business having an increasing and healthy influence on the education system, but since then we have seem to have regressed. Perhaps the business and the education departments need to be told to work closer together to ensure that enterprise features in our curricula at all levels. Perhaps business itself needs to be better organised, more confident and more articulate in explaining why this is so important and maybe the new business council is a vehicle for that.
To be clear, I am not encouraging yet further debates on the balance between vocational, technical and academic education. Those debates, I am sure, will go on. This is about ensuring that all students, whatever their subject, develop the desire and capability to be enterprising. It will not happen naturally, there is probably nothing we need more to be successful in a post-Brexit world.