How appropriate that the new president of the National Union of Students is – for the first time ever – someone who has not been to university. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, all the talk is of rebalancing the economy, of “making things again”, of newly dynamic industries conquering global markets. Toni Pearce’s vision of a country where the scion of a family of Russell Group alumni can choose an apprenticeship with head held high – and career prospects intact – is, then, a timely one. Without the kind of vocational and technical skills that have for so long played a muted second fiddle to academic qualifications, the talk of a rebalanced Britain will remain just that.
We have a long way to go, though. The model, of course, is Germany. The German economy may now have been dragged down by the travails of the eurozone, but its performance, both before and after the financial crisis, attracted envious attention in Britain and across the world. The key is the country’s vibrant manufacturing base; and while its infrastructure, labour reforms and multitude of small companies – the much-envied mittelstand – all play a role, so does its education system.
The contrast with Britain could hardly be more striking. Here – where youth unemployment is rising even as employers complain that they cannot find the skills they need – fewer than one in 10 school-leavers pursue a vocational qualification and a tiny fraction enter an apprenticeship. In Germany, around half of all young people go from school into some kind of technical education, and more than 40 per cent become apprentices.
In fairness, we have made some progress. Thanks to a big push from the Coalition, apprentice numbers have rocketed. Meanwhile, a watchdog has now been appointed to whip the further education sector into shape. And another 13 “universal technical colleges” have just been approved – which means that by 2015 Britain will have 45 schools specifically designed to train technicians and engineers, from the age of 14. The mood music is also good. Only last month, Nick Clegg railed against the “second division” perception of non-academic qualifications.
Behind the heartening headlines, however, the picture is altogether more mixed. True, more than 500,000 people started apprenticeships last year, but a dwindling number of them were school-leavers. In fact, the majority were people aged 25 or older who were already in work, often with the employer offering them the apprenticeship. Nor is quality less of an issue than quantity, according a government-commissioned review. Too many schemes last mere months, rather than years, and offer little of educational value.
Further education is hardly less of a challenge. With Ofsted’s most recent review concluding that more than a third of FE colleges are not good enough, is it any wonder that technical qualifications are the poor relation? The Government is now making moves to address the situation. But the fact it ever arose says more about political priorities – and the gaps between the departments for education and for business – than all the soaring speeches put together.
It would be unrealistic to expect decades of educational institution-building and cultural prejudice to be overturned in an instant. Even so, much more must be done if the tanker is to be turned around. Extra money is, as ever, part of the equation. But that is not all. Better links with industry, a rigorous focus on quality, and a more coherent approach from the Government are also desperately needed. If the president of the NUS can add to the pressure, on behalf of students themselves – that will help, too.