70% of employers say there is too much focus on grades in secondary education, finds PwC research

  • 86% of UK employers rate A-levels as important in their recruitment process
  • Lack of preparation for the world of work, personal skills such as time management, and communication skills rank among the biggest challenges 
  • Just 11% say young people’s digital and tech skills aren’t up to scratch  
  • PwC says onus should partly be on employers to help shape curriculums - 78% agree

The majority of employers (70%) say there is too much focus on grades in secondary education but are still reliant on them - with GCSE (76%) and A-level results (86%) forming an important part of their recruitment process, according to PwC research. University degree grades are important to 85%. 

The survey of 150 UK employers also found that around three in four (74%) use assessment techniques such as cognitive ability tests and online aptitude tests in addition to GCSE, A-level and/or degree grades. Some 15% use these tests without grade consideration. 

PwC UK’s Chief People Officer Laura Hinton explains the firm’s position:

"The education system undoubtedly gives students an important foundation for the world of work - it's not just about the grades but the broader experience of learning, participating, and meeting deadlines.

“We focus our entry assessment on future potential rather than past performance, which can be unduly influenced by school and background. We're looking for problem solvers with curiosity, and can assess this partly through psychometric tests. For graduates we don't look at GCSEs or A-levels, but we do for our school leaver programme where there are fewer alternative ways to judge ability.  But we do contextualise results and accept lower grades from those who attend disadvantaged schools.”

Employers’ perspectives on skills gaps

Employers are divided over whether the current UK education system and curriculum provide young people with the skills they need to be prepared for work. Half (50%) say the secondary system does (31% disagree, 19% are undecided). Slightly more - 54% - back the current higher education system (29% disagree, 17% undecided). 

The majority (60%) identified lack of preparation for the world of work as a challenge they face with recruits joining their organisations straight from school, college, or university. Lack of personal skills such as time management is a challenge for 51% and lack of communication skills for 45%. 

Encouragingly, just 11% disagreed that young people entering the workforce have adequate digital and technology skills to do their job effectively - with 70% agreeing and 19% undecided. 

Collaboration between business, local government, and education providers

Over three quarters (78%) of respondents agree there should be more input from local government and businesses in the curriculum to help address regional skills requirements and/or shortages.

Caitroina McCusker, Education Leader at PwC UK, said: 

“Equipping school, college, and university leavers with the skills they need for future jobs is critical to improving productivity and delivering inclusive growth across the UK. As we look beyond the pandemic and towards a recovery in education in particular, it's hugely important we draw on the broader opportunity to reform and reimagine education services.  

“Educators and employers must work together to bridge the gap between education and the world of work, and employers have an important role to play in providing practical pathways into the workforce - particularly amid uncertainty about exactly what the future of work will look like. This can take many different forms, from investment in apprenticeship programmes and partnering with local schools through to curriculum development. It’s equally vital that educators and employers bring in a broader ecosystem of support, thinking about mental health and wellbeing needs, and how they can address digital poverty and social disadvantages. The need for a more joined up approach has never been so important.

“In practice, this could be anything from the public sector and business conducting skills planning together on the basis of local labour market opportunities and challenges, to employers co-developing programmes with education providers.” 

Relationships between education providers and business already exist. Some 69% of respondents’ organisations engage in outreach programmes with local schools and/or colleges. Of those that don’t, 40% would like to in the future. 

Laura Hinton, Chief People Officer at PwC UK, said: 

“Schools and colleges shouldn't have to second guess the skills that employers need; the onus should partly be on employers to help shape the curriculum. We've seen huge benefits from working with universities on specific programmes, such as our technology degree apprenticeships."


Notes to editors:

The 151 respondents were surveyed 25-31 August 2021 by PwC Research, the firm's global centre of excellence for market and social research. All respondents had responsibility for the recruitment of new graduates or school and college leavers, and the application of employment policies within their organisation. 

The below chart shows the prevalence of challenges experienced by employers with recruits joining straight from school, college, or university. 

There is no accompanying report. 

For information about PwC’s technology degree apprenticeships and other programmes, please visit our career site





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