Published by: FT.com
If immigration is to be reduced and the multifarious skills’ holes backfilled from within, then Britain has to transform its grasp of comprehensive vocational education.
In Italy, where tourism is a major industry, pupils can join vocational and technical schools at age 14 for three years to specialise in hospitality and food alongside their general education. In regions where particular skills are needed – ceramic tile production or aircraft maintenance, for example – there are schools founded to teach them. If France is a major market for these industries, French will be on the syllabus (to communicate, not to decline pluperfect tenses). In Germany, the strength of both its technical vocational education and its manufacturing and engineering industries presumably is not coincidental.
Here, we have never ‘got’ vocational education and its many merits – historic class divisions, educational snobbery, and adversarial politics have got in the way. Misfiring from the start, the provision for secondary technical schools in the 1944 Education Act lived only at the margin of accepted study. The story has been the same since: need spotted, schemes developed, a few benefit, the mass neglected and force-fitted into an alien system.
Whilst the educational supply-side failed to provide, the demand-side for the right skills fuelled EU immigration. With the Accession of the ‘A8’ counties and the opening of UK borders to motivated and well-educated east European workers in 2004, industries seized this crock of competitive gold.
The roll call of skills’ Cassandras extends monthly. The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants says eight out of 10 British school leavers “lacked essential business skills” such as numeracy. John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, in its 25th anniversary edition, said: “Recently I have been working in the House of Lords on issues of literacy and the around 30 per cent of our children who pass through school and come out ill-prepared for life.” Some end up on the streets, too.
To provide the skills Britain needs already and will need in spades post-Brexit, our attitude to comprehensive vocational education has to be revolutionised and, for the first time in our modern history, done properly.