Blog: Katy AskewRetailers launch fresh offensive on education

Katy Askew | 10 March 2010

Tesco, the UK's largest private employer, has continued the prolonged assault on what it terms the failings of the UK's education system.

Addressing a conference in London today (10 March), Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the retailer's director of corporate and legal affairs, said that UK school-leavers have problems with basic literacy and numeracy, timekeeping and “what you might call an attitude problem”.

“They don't seem to understand the importance of a tidy appearance and have problems with timekeeping ... Some seem to think that the world owes them a living,” she griped.

Her comments echo sentiments expressed by Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, who bemoaned the “woefully low” standards in UK schools last October.

Striking a more upbeat note, both Asda and Sainsbury's today unveiled new training programmes designed to equip employees – or potential employees – with the skills needed in the workplace.

Highlighting the “lack of recognition” that the grocery sector receives as a driver of economic growth, Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King announced the launch of the UK’s first supermarket bakery college.

Meanwhile, Asda has said that it will offer 14 to 16 year olds a week of “real” work experience. Each of Asda's 371 stores will partner with a local school or college to help introduce young people into the world of work. The supermarket group will also offer 15,000 of its workers the chance to take part in a 12-week apprenticeship programme.

“One million people under the age of 25 are unemployed, and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better," Asda CEO Andy Bond (rather gloomily) predicted. “That's why I'm determined that we do everything we can now to help young people get a foot in the door."

So the message from the world of retail is loud and clear: schools are failing to equip the next generation of workers with skills needed in the workplace.

These criticisms have been repeatedly shrugged off by teaching unions and the government, who argue that educational standards have never been higher.

Nevertheless, if the controversial assessment of business leaders proves accurate, it has some serious implications for the future economic prosperity not just of the UK's food and retail sectors, but the UK economy as a whole.


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