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Skills are the problem. But does anyone have a solution?

22 April 2013

For years, words ‘skills’ and ‘crisis’ have been joined in British political discourse. It’s a problem that no one seems able to crack and on May 2nd, The Spectator is holding a conference to get to the bottom of it. Labour excelled at explaining the problem. When Gordon Brown went through his phase of ennobling bankers and asking them to decide government policy, he asked Lloyds’ Sandy Leitch to conduct the Skills Review which found that Britain does well at educating its elite, but not well with others. Germany, by contrast, has 60pc of youngsters in upper secondary education in vocational training. Half of all German pupils in vocational training spend more time in the workplace – studying for apprenticeships – than they do in the classroom, meaning that when they graduate, they are the perfect package for employers.

So what’s Britain’s problem? Why can’t we emulate Germany’s prowess when it comes to teaching pupils ‘skills’? Two peers have some thoughts: Kenneth Baker, who started school reform off under the Tory government and Andrew Adonis, architect of the Academies Programme. Lord Adonis says in his excellent book Education, Education, Education that Britain went wrong during the calamity of comprehensive education. Many ‘secondary moderns,’ he said, warehoused rather than educated children – whereas Germany treated vocational skills properly. In his conclusions he calls for a Technical Baccalaureate; a development the Conservative-led government announced today.

Lord Baker, who started the school reform with his City Technology Colleges in 1986, is back in the fray now with a new book: 14-18 – A New Vision for Secondary Education.The education system, he says, is currently too focused on preparing pupils to pass exams. But he sees an opportunity in the change in laws, which will ensure that every British student must remain in either full-time education or training until the age of 18, rather than letting 17pc drop out as happens now. The only way to do this, he says, will be to change our system and introduce more vocational skills that young people regard as worthwhile.


Will it work? Part of Lord Baker’s plan includes engaging local employers in the curriculum and encouraging them to get involved with the teaching process – whether this be by discussing careers or by offering a more hands-on learning experience. In addition, his idea of measuring educational achievement not by exam results but by the proportion of pupils who gain employment after graduating sounds promising on the surface – but would he be able to convince the government that this is a sensible way of measuring achievement?

Today’s announcement of a new ‘Technological Baccalaureate’ (suggested in the Wolf Review) is a step in the right direction. It might only have been introduced in a bid to trump Ed Miliband’s plans for his own ‘Tech Bacc’, but as Ronald Reagan once said, it’s amazing what you can achieve in politics if you don’t care who takes the credit.

Lord Baker of Dorking will be explaining all this at The Spectator’s half-day forum: Skilling Britain for the 21st Century, on Thursday 2nd May. Tickets are still available:


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  • DWWolds

    A few months ago, just after his company had announced massive profits, Paul Dyson was on the air waves bemoaning the lack of skilled workers. Well, here’s a suggestion for him. He should put his money where his mouth is and sponsor technical training courses in Colleges of FE. He might then find that he has some influence on the kind of skills training that is provided.

  • Simon Scarth

    I think it is so very basic and
    obvious. I remember in Tony Benn’s book referring to the plaque on his wall
    saying ‘from cradle to grave’. Good old nanny state would give you a pretend
    education, so you could get a pretend job and they would pretend to pay you and
    then ‘killer’ Burnham would ensure that you did not hang around for too long to
    cost the NHS more. What a simple easy thing Socialism is.

    Living and working in Northern
    Europe I see on a daily basis the real meaning of personal responsibility, if
    you like the Calvinistic Protestant Work Ethic. You and you only are
    responsible for getting educated, getting a job that suits the best your
    ability and take care of yourself and family with the proviso that the state
    could and would help you when it all went wrong. I really think that the ‘they
    should’ mentality saps the very life blood out of society. Yes there are
    Strivers and Skivers, the sad thing is that Skivers do not firstly know that they
    are and secondly what to do about it, themselves.

  • itdoesntaddup

    The idea that incarcerating children in school until age 18 will add to their education is false. It will merely add to the cost of education, and since Parkinson’s Law will apply – the work expands to fill the time available – they will end up no better educated.

    Dumbing down of standards has already cost us. Those who previously earned something while learning a trade are instead kept in detention in the education system.

    Some children (an increasing number, given the breakdown of family life) are unable to absorb much in their teens: they need a raincheck, and another outlet until they can reset and take a more serious interest in life.

    We also have the increasing numbers who have been failed by the dumbed down education system, for whom remedial education to give them some basic skills might be beneficial.

  • sarahsmith232

    I wish both Labour and the Tories would tread lightly with this. warning bells should be going off when you read that ‘local employers’ will be involved.
    if the kids are in affluent areas with an abundance of interesting employers then great but what about the North? most areas don’t have many other local employers other than supermarkets and dreary, uninteresting jobs going.
    the issue is kids not aspiring high enough in these areas. it’s difficult to get them to think uni’ is for them, put them through a school system that’s also telling them that they should be aiming to be employed locally in their? what? Tesco/garden centre/delivery van company/plumbing company/local, minimum wage hair and beauty salon/etc and it kills their horizons off even further.
    this is another version of the secondary modern thinking, that the responsible thing to do is create an education system area ‘their’ needs, i.e v bottom of the barrel, boring, limiting, drudgery jobs.
    kids these days will baulk at that.

    • Sue Ward

      On the contrary, it is not a problem of kids not having any aspirations but one of them having totally unrealistic aspirations. What this country needs is people of small intelligence and aspiration pulling their weight by knuckling down and doing the dull jobs in supermarkets and factories instead of sitting back on benefits while the country imports people from abroad to do the menial jobs. Grammar schools used to give opportunity to children with potential regardless of their background, meanwhile those less academic took pride in providing for their families through craftsmanship or else doing whatever unskilled work they could.

  • Tom Tom

    Our Politicians have no Skills. Few have any experience of life or qualifications in their field

  • terence patrick hewett

    What about the skills crisis in journalism? where are the Ivor Browns, Whartons, Mortons, Levins. What about the skills crisis in cartoonists?; where are the Jaks, Lows, Giles’, Osbert Lancasters. What about the skills crisis in politicians? As for the Westminster Palace of Fun, the late great Brian O’Nolan of the Irish Times had it right about all of them.

    “The majority of the members of the Irish parliament are professional politicians, in the sense that otherwise they would not be given jobs minding mice at a crossroads.”

    The sciences and engineers are doing well compared to the above.

  • albert ross

    Your article perfectly illustrates part of the problem. From whom do we hear on this subject? Baron Baker of Dorking, privately educated and an Oxford law graduate, and Baron Adonis, history graduate from the same place. Indeed, the Baron Baker ‘will be explaining all this [no less!] at the Spectator’s half-day forum’. I suppose that neither of these educated gentlemen has any great skill himself with the trowel, the lathe, or the jack-plane, nor has he chapped his hands very much in a daily struggle with refractory materials, yet here they are, the good lords, telling us what is wrong with the trades. Good Lord! Why do we not ask tradesmen what is wrong with the trades? I shall tell you why not:- because in the UK, a tradesman is regarded as about halfway between a dumb oik who happens to be ‘good with his hands’, and a greedy fraudster. The educated people who debate and decide how the country is run, educated and trained, simply cannot let go of the idea of the superiority of the intellect in all fields. They will always value the wrong analysis from an intellectual over an accurate analysis from a tradesman.

    • Tom Tom

      Great comment!!

  • paulus

    When I read that it was lumberous, if you cant do it first time leave it then re write it.Snappy, snappy, snappy, it was like burying the fuckin dead and digging the hole in Norway in the winter.

  • Troika21

    Good lord, not another qualification. Besides, I thought apprenticeships were the go-to item for this sort of nonsense.

    introduce more vocational skills

    Except that every student has been told that the only way to get on in life is through University, not ‘vocational’ (read: low-status/quality) skills.

  • Daniel Maris

    Firstly, this issue won’t be addressed until we create business and vocational schools (at secondary level) to sit along academies which should be more like the old grammar schools. But parents should be able to choose which school their children go to. At the same time, we need to put in place a conveyor belt from school to work.

    • Tom Tom

      You need more companies. Britain has a far lower proportion of family businesses than USA, Germany, France, Italy etc. It is a socialist cartellised economy where SMEs are destroyed

      • dalai guevara

        Oh dear, Mustard will hate you for your accuracy.

  • Dogsnob

    As long as people like you Fraser, insist that our elites are the driving force – that it is they who are the ‘wealth creators’ of the nation – then shallow minds will believe it and we will stay mired in the idiocy foisted upon the nation by Nigel Lawson and the service-economy mode he promised would be the way to go.

    Meanwhile, the Germans and others are left to carry on with that quaint, old-fashioned habit of educating youngsters, passing real skill onto them through proper apprenticeships rather than our poundshop NVQ muppetry; and instilling them with the understanding that it is their skills and hard work which creates real wealth.

    • dalai guevara

      The reason why we cannot access our shale resources is because we have no trained personnel to do so.
      The reason why we have the flimsiest roof structures in the western world is because carpentry is an undervalued profession.
      The reason why we imported Polish plumbers is because no one could do the job here.
      The reason why we cannot build our own nuclear powers stations is because we no longer have those skills.
      The reason why I just cannot find one decent shoemaker to mend my
      Brogues/ fix my leather bags in my conurbation of 2.5 million inhabitants is because all we do is plastic moulding.
      Does anyone still know how to bake real bread?
      The reason why we are no longer a nation of shopkeepers is because we have willingly subscribed to the concept of American mall shopping.

      Why do I have no issue with any of the above when I travel to the continent?

      • terence patrick hewett

        I bake my own bread: the stuff available in supermarkets is not fit to feed to the pigs.

        • Tom Tom

          Chorleywood Process

      • sarahsmith232

        the reason why there was an influx of plumbers coming in from E.Europe and getting jobs was ’cause the working class boys were aiming higher and going for computer training instead of things like plumbing training.
        this resulted in there being less youngsters coming through and the older plumbers were getting to charge a fortune. plumbers were earning over £60,000 a year and getting a plumber to do any little, tiny job would break the bank in the early 2000’s.
        thinking that the solution to a dearth of Brit’ kids skilled in the drudgery jobs is to merely increase apprenticeships is out by a mile. there wasn’t the shortage in the training courses it was that the kids didn’t want to end up in dead end, no status jobs. so increasing training or apprenticeships in these areas is not going to change that.
        high speed rail to the North, rebalancing the economy, concentrating on creating interesting, status sectors there is something that is needed. concentrating on increasing the creative industries there is a must.

        • DWWolds

          I would suggest you read Frank Field’s article in the Sunday Times. He reports “Brit’ kids” telling him it wasn’t worth getting out of bed for £300 a week. They also asked him if he really thought they should take the kind of jobs immigrants do.

    • Tom Tom

      There are lots of skilled people with HNC and HND Engineering unable to work in Engineering, and lots of skilled people forced into unskilled jobs. There are not enough companies Fraser that is the issue. Not enough SMEs

  • dalai guevara

    The standards of vocational training or simply the training of any ‘craftsman’ in countries of the former Hanseatic League is quite frankly not comparable to the inferior pseudo-industrial output here. Industrialisation in Britain has destroyed the ethos of entire industries (including farming), whilst it has enriched the process in those countries that have an entirely different approach to social status of their skilled workforce, the importance of family business structures and the evaluation of what constitues a quality product.

    • Daniel Maris

      I agree. It is the status issue that is important.

      • Tom Tom

        Not sure about that. It’s discipline and application that is needed but this is a culture where if it is not easy it is not undertaken. Interestingly, London is the main advertising centre in Europe and the focus is on image and status and your comment reflects this. Britain also leads in TV hours watched. Read James Dyson’s autobiography about the lathe in the garden shed – that is where things are learned.

  • BuBBleBus

    Skills, what skills? A meaningless word batted around political circles. Oh yes let’s be more like the Germans, whatever for? The French also have a different education system too, and with lots of drop-outs from their state system. I went to a 1960’s Technical High school which was a previous incarnation of state ideology, something between gammar school and secondary modern. Schooling’s not so much the problem as lack of employment opportunities. The people who get on in this world are those with ambition, who create their own careers. It usually takes years of trial and error, it does not magically happen at 17 or 18 years of age. By the way, university education is a great way towards a better, more balanced work-force.

    • Sue Ward

      I’m surprised this comment is being marked down. Seems eminently sensible to me.

    • itdoesntaddup

      Pretending that half our children have the aptitude for a proper university degree is actually highly damaging for them, and a waste of money for taxpayers who end up paying for it. If they are awarded devalued degrees then employers know the qualification isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Those of real ability then have to waste further time demonstrating that fact by taking postgraduate courses. Dumbing down qualifications helps no-one.

  • Stephen Percival

    There was more emphasis from the Labour government (particularly highlighting their “education, education” ditty) on university pass-rates than vocational courses and apprenticeships – as a result, we have a generation struggling to find a job.

    There needs to be an ease of pressure, too, on young people to attend university with avoidance of making it a “holy grail” of achievement because, quite frankly, English Literature and History (the humanities) and various other degrees have no impact on the current job market.

    Employers want to know if you can adjust a claim, not recite the Four Quartets.

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