Skip to content

Are exams the be all and end all?

I would not trade in my education for anything. It has formed my mind and character, enhanced my ability to enjoy the experience of living and enriched my understanding of other people.
I revere education as the process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another.
But these days, as young people look at the relentless rise in the dole queues, they might be forgiven for thinking that formal education is one of the biggest scams around.
Despite so many schools boasting ever-more-impressive exam results and a growing community of universities minting degrees, the perceived value of education is, regrettably, falling on the jobs market. Once the badge of real achievement, formal education, in itself, is no longer a passport to a successful and prosperous life.
So it was with a chilly sense of recognition that I turned to the results of a poll of 1,000 businesses conducted by OnePoll for the Axa Ambition Awards, supported by Young Enterprise.  The research threw up the startling finding that 80.8% of employers would forgo some A-Levels if a candidate had good work experience.
What is more, 31.19% were willing to forgo as many as two A-levels if the applicant had the right hands-on credentials.
It may seem an obvious statement, but I believe that experience counts for more than ever these days. If I am asked, I tell young people that it is not a question of ‘either’ education ‘or’ experience. You emphatically need both.
The point is this…   Employers automatically expect high standards of English, maths and science. Having a good basic education under your belt is a given. It’s just that these days there are so many young people on the jobs market with excellent qualifications that academic skills are simply not enough.
I would even go as far as to say that, unless one wants to work in a highly regulated occupation like medicine or law, I am not sure that formal education can be seen as a prerequisite.
But having relevant work experience, increasingly, is. This is illustrated in the poll by the statistic showing that 58.4% of employers used work experience to ‘differentiate between candidates.’ 
It really is stunning that ‘character and personality’ was the most important factor for 60.2% of employers when hiring entry-level staff, followed by 54.6% who cited ‘experience in sector’ and eagerness to learn (52.1%). Formal qualifications came relatively low down the list. A-levels were important for 14.2%, a degree for 22.2 % and GCSEs for 19.1% of employers.
Another telling number is that 59.1% of employers believed that graduates are not equipped with appropriate work skills when leaving education. A hefty 62.5% said they felt relevant work experience was becoming more important.
Obviously, Young Enterprise only gets involved in commissioning such research in our never-ceasing efforts to understand what is happening in the business world and how young people relate to it. So how does the concept of ‘relevant work experience’ relate to what we do? Well, in many ways our work offers young people the chance to find something they love doing and learn as much about it as they can while still at school, college and university.
After 50 years of Young Enterprise in Britain, a million graduates of our Company Programme, who got the chance to run their own firms for a year, are out there. They have been christened the ‘secret saviours’ of the British economy.
The greatest success stories I have ever come across always seem to involve people who got the chance to work out exactly what they wanted to do and felt a passion for it by the time they left secondary school or university. Young Enterprise offers them the chance to find out what that is. They ‘learn by doing,’ with the help and guidance of mentors from real businesses, in a way that purely academic approaches would never succeed in doing. And when they present themselves to employers, or opt to set up their own businesses, they are much better prepared for the challenges of real life.
Before Ofsted comes knocking at my door, let me say loudly: I am not calling on our nation’s youth to abandon formal education. But in the modern age we must accept that without experience of the world of work, starting in the classroom, formal education can become at worst truly irrelevant.