The national curriculum is a brave and important reform, but even when it has been implemented the UK educational system will not provide the kind of education needed by modern industry. In his new work, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Harvard’s Michael Porter succinctly describes the faults of the British system of education: ‘The result of such an educational system is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, there is a pool of outstanding people well qualified for professional services, consultancy, software, publishing and the like. The upper tier of the human resource pool remains well trained and low-cost compared to other nations … On the other hand, there is a serious problem confronting the bulk of industry. The British workforce is well behind in education and skills compared with that of many other advanced nations.’
British industry needs, therefore, to say clearly what knowledge and skills ought to be developed. We should not be tempted to formulate educational provision in terms of specific occupations, but there are some general statements that can be made. First of all industry must say forcefully that it does not need just a small, well-educated elite but a mass, well-educated labor force. Studies by Professor Prais and his team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research have provided plenty of evidence to show that productivity on the factory floor is directly attributable to the knowledge and skills of the workers.
Secondly, the point must be made that if industry in the UK is to regain its technological edge we are going to need more people with managerial and financial responsibilities who understand the technological potential of their industry. If we don’t, we won’t get the applied innovations which are so essential for world leadership. Thirdly, industry needs to have a greater supply of people in its middle ranks with strong vocational skills.
British industry needs also to say what further reforms it would like to see. There are four areas where I would like to see action. Firstly, to compete industrially we need to raise the level of literacy and numeracy of our young people. Maths provides the foundation for modern technology and for much commercial and office work. A high level of attainment in this area will mean that vocational training given within industry will be more effective and worthwhile. But what do we find? While only about a third of our school children achieve the equivalent of a maths O-level pass, roughly twice this proportion achieve a comparable standard in West Germany, and Japan appears to be even further ahead. The national curriculum should help here, but it will only do so if definite targets are set to raise the average level of attainment and narrow the expected spread.
A second area of concern for any industrialist, given the shortage of people with an intermediate level of skill, must be the number of young people who remain in full-time education until 18. In the US, Japan and South Korea, more than 85% of 16-year-olds stay on; here the proportion is less than 50%. Of the other European countries only Greece has a lower proportion of 16-year-olds in education. As soon as possible we should seek to move towards a situation where between 80% and 90% of our school children voluntarily continue in some form of further education or training until 18. But what form should this education take?
The cheap and simple answer would be to copy the apprenticeship systems of West Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which combine training in companies with further education. An alternative is the French route where less academic children go to vocational schools from 14 to 18 and end up with craft-level qualifications, or attend various higher-level vocational baccalaureat courses for 16 to 19-year-olds, which produce technician engineers with managerial skills.
A third model is provided by Denmark which has been moving towards a system in which all young people remain within the same college between the ages of 16 and 18. If they choose the vocational route, they go into a two-year apprenticeship at 18, having done preparatory work for it at college.
There are arguments for each of these systems. We need urgently to chose one or a mix of them. We must then work hard to create a technical stream in our schools which will capture the interest and enthusiasm of pupils who excel in practical rather than theoretical subjects.
The third area where I would like to see change is in A-levels. The single-subject system is very different from that of other countries where a broad mix is compulsory. In Japan, eight to 10 subjects are studied for university entrance; in France it is seven. As a result of our premature specialization we get the absurd situation of many arts graduates giving up maths at 15, and many scientists and engineers going into industry who have given up English and foreign languages.
Finally, we will need to increase the number of students going to universities or polytechnics in the next decade. But we need universities, along the lines of the German Technische Hochschule or the French Grande Ecole, which will have the clear goal of educating and training the next generation of British managers.