Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders – is our game plan right?

As both the school year and the Euros draw to a close, I got to thinking about performance and achievement. The Green and White Army (GAWA) and Ireland squads both did us proud. Yes, we’re out of the competition, but boy did we punch above our weight in terms of performance and staying power.


I should set one thing straight from the outset: although I’m the daughter of a former Irish league player, I don’t claim for a second to be an expert when it comes to footie game plans or critique (I still don’t really know who Will Grigg is…admit it, you’re already singing aren’t you?).

I read an interesting article recently by the principal of a Northern Ireland post-primary school. He was drawing parallels between the approach of the GAWA and what’s needed in our schools to raise aspirations and to help our young people, tomorrow’s leaders, really understand what it takes to succeed in life and in the world of work. A parent in the school was a former NI goalkeeper, and he was invited to talk about his experience and what lead to his success. He talked about the importance of . . .

  • Having the chance to explore what he was good at and interested in
  • Focus
  • Hard work and determination
  • Having a supportive environment and infrastructure to help maximise potential and to enable him to be the best he could be

There is no doubt that our schools are operating in a tough environment: budgets are being squeezed, class sizes as still too big, and exam result league tables name and shame without highlighting some of the hidden challenges schools are dealing with.

Thankfully, the education system, particularly careers education, has come a long way since I was at school. I went to a good school, but I vividly remember my first introduction to careers education. I was instructed to read the two-page information sheets on job types and to “decide what I wanted to be when I grew up”. Unfortunately, a career in acting didn’t materialise, probably for the best, for the viewing public.

It’s a different story today: organisations like Business in the Community, Sentinus, Young Enterprise and others are working with schools to help bring careers to life – working alongside teachers, helping to enhance the curriculum and ensuring that access to opportunities, such as quality work experience and entrepreneurship advice, are available to everyone.

The challenge, however, is that there is a lack of consistency across schools. Some are very proactive and well connected to local employers. Others less so. And it’s ultimately our young people who lose out, through lack of exposure to opportunities and relevant careers advice.

Northern Ireland employers are also losing out in terms of access to much-needed future talent. The skills-gap challenge has been highlighted most recently in the NI Skills Barometer, spearheaded by Ulster University, which shows the mismatch between classroom teaching/educational skills outputs and what NI employers require now and in the future.

It’s also no surprise that a growing number of professional firms here have developed school-based apprenticeship programmes. The NI Skills Barometer highlights the fact that young people who achieve 5 GCSEs, A Levels, and degrees do go on to access higher paid jobs in time. Here lies the challenge: for as long as schools solely prioritise the grades and league tables, we are likely to continue to fail on the careers education front for many – particularly those with fewer links and networks to the working world outside of the school environment, and this is further fueling the postcode deprivation challenge.

The more we can facilitate and encourage employers and schools to work together, the more likely we are to help shape the type of skillsets and leadership approaches needed for Northern Ireland’s future economy to prosper. It’s for this reason that I would like to see the next Programme for Government prioritising work readiness and careers advice, just as much as educational outcomes. The new Careers Advisory Forum, co-established by the Department for the Economy and the Department for Education, provides some hope, of course.

Just as employer needs and desires are changing, so too are those of our young people in terms of expectations of working life.

Generation D – the young people currently in our schools – have grown up in a digital world, and companies are being forced to respond by, for example, using Snapchat to recruit staff and by developing novel work experience approaches. Another example is Barclays, who has developed the first work experience simulator, called the LifeSkills Pod, where users are greeted by a virtual colleague before embarking on a series of 10-minute tasks.

Despite considerable improvements in employer/education connectivity, there is much more that could, and should, be done. Work experience placements offer a unique insight into a company’s work environment, but while 66% of employers agree that such initiatives are invaluable, only 30% are able to provide them, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

Join us on 5 October for the Big Education Debate at our Responsible Business Summit. We can’t promise to finally put Will Grigg on the panel/starting-line-up, but we will be exploring how we can create tomorrow’s leaders in today’s education system, and the role that business has to play.

Just as The Northern Ireland team’s success wasn’t down to one individual, we need to explore how different stakeholders can play their part: to support schools; to help raise aspirations; to provide focus and opportunity; to access relevant marketplace information; and to collectively provide the right infrastructure and support that our ex-NI goalkeeper mentioned.

During the debate, young people will be asking (and challenging) business, education and government representatives about what needs to change to ensure every young person can fulfil their potential, whatever their postcode, and how Northern Ireland can work towards ensuring that it has the best workforce for the future, by properly preparing the next generation for the world of work. For more information on the Big Education Debate, visit

And remember #DaretoDream – let’s change our game plan to work even more collaboratively with schools to help shape and support the next generation of future leaders to be the absolute best they can be.