Talent-spotting without CVs

Innovative recruiters are providing marginalised and disenfranchised youth with an entry pass to a p

Here's a simple multiple-choice question for you: two-thirds of boys and half of all girls fail to meet GCSE expectations and are labelled unemployable at the age of 16. Who or what is at fault? a. The feckless teenagers; b. Poor teachers; or c. A system that assesses only narrow academic learning, bears little resemblance to employers' needs and ignores the skills and abilities possessed by the dispossessed.

There is little doubt in the mind of Colin Birchall, chief executive of Pertemps People Development Group, that the answer is C. Mr Birchall's Midlands-based company has, through the Welfare to Work programme, helped more than 60,000 long-term unemployed people into real jobs. Not through gaining more, often pointless, qualifications, but by developing skills and talents such as effective communication, initiative or teamwork, which are invisible to the academic examiner but invaluable to an employer.

So little faith has he in the prevalent methods of assessment, that when recruiting his own staff or helping clients back to work, Mr Birchall refuses to look at CVs, believing that exam grades, or the lack of them, cannot accurately display a candidate's potential. Instead he searches for the individual's spark of brilliance, the one thing that makes people feel worthwhile and good about themselves. That one spark, whether it be a talent in music or sport, gardening or mechanics, is then used as a starting point to build up a sense of accomplishment and self-worth which can be transported into other areas of life and eventually into the workplace.

The search involves a series of role-play and discussion exercises that encourage clients to see how often the skills they use just living their lives can be useful to an employer. "The single parent on a limited budget, bringing up children in a deprived and sometimes threatening area has developed an amazing range of skills that can be honed for the workplace," says Mr Birchall.

There is nothing magic about what Pertemps achieves with those dismissed as failures by an academic and theoretical education; nothing that schools, released from the straitjacket of tests and targets, could not develop with pupils before they are rejected as defective, if only the system were refashioned to take account of every ability, not just the academic.

Schools need the time and space to search for the spark in all pupils, not just those who happen to fit into the narrow band of abilities that are currently examined. But even if we can persuade the powers-that-be to stop weighing the pig, the problem remains how traditionally unqualified teenagers can convince employers fixated with exam grades and addicted to the crude filter of GCSEs and A levels that they are worth interviewing too.

One possibility envisioned by Andy Powell, chief executive of Edge, the education foundation with the ear of ministers, is a multi-media portfolio of achievements that could include video clips of a workplace skill in action, as well as certificates, exam grades and references. As he says children brought up on YouTube and Facebook should have no trouble uploading clips to demonstrate an ability untouched by examiners. Such a document could treat both practical skills and academic success equally and perhaps go some way to bridging the peculiarly British gap between vocational and academic assessment. And, maybe, employers could be weaned off their dependence on an assessment system created for a very different labour market half a century ago.

Such a portfolio, reflecting the broadest achievements of school leavers' abilities, should be allowed to become an entry pass for our marginalised and disenfranchised youth to a more productive future.

Alison Shepherd is a freelance education correspondent and former chair of governors at a north-east London primary school

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times