OECD joins critics of UK education and job training

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The Independent Online
THE authoritative Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development added its voice last week to the clamour for Britain to improve its education and training, write Christopher Huhne and Barrie Clement.

Even though two thirds of students now stay on at school beyond the minimum age of 16, too many drop out and 'often gain no more than basic recognised vocational qualifications', the OECD said. It blamed poor schools and inadequate youth training.

Economic research has shown that Britain's low pay and low productivity economy is largely attributable to its low level of skills. Nearly two thirds of the workforce have no vocational qualifications, compared with a quarter in Germany.

Sigmund Prais and his colleagues at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research have found that higher skill levels on the Continent allow Britain's competitors to operate more sophisticated production processes.

Production line workers on the Continent often have the ability to perform trouble- shooting tasks, whereas British workers have to wait for maintenance teams. In Britain, production lines stop more often, require higher stocks of components and cannot be as highly mechanised.

Despite Britain's shortfall in skills, the most recent comparisons suggest that there is still less national effort to improve the workforce than elsewhere. The numbers qualifying in engineering and technology at craftsman level - the lowest skill level - were 35,000 in Britain, 120,000 in Germany and 92,000 in France in 1985. Britain's percentage of 16 to 18-year-olds participating in education and training is still lower than most of our competitors at 70 per cent in 1989. By contrast, the proportion in 1986 was 80 per cent in the United States, 78 per cent in Sweden, 79 per cent in Japan, 90 per cent inWest Germany and 74 per cent in France.

Since the mid-1980s the Government's approach to training has been characterised by voluntarism - abolishing almost all industry training boards that had the statutory right to impose a levy on companies. The levy was then spent on developing and improving the skills of workers. Nor has the Government accepted the need to pay tuition fees for recognised vocational qualifications.

Instead, the Government has created local Training and Enterprise Councils, which spend taxpayers' money on the unemployed and were meant to encourage companies to train those they already employed.

But reports from companies who provide the training suggest that the situation is not good. The Government has trimmed its budget for teaching the unemployed new skills and is about to announce cuts in the length of training courses.