Jonathan McHugh illustration of Camilla Cavendish column ‘Vocation, vocation should be UK middle class’s new mantra’
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer, a Harvard senior fellow, advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

This summer, when parents like me were fretting over our children’s pending A-level results, almost half a million kids doing technical qualifications were suddenly left in limbo when their results were postponed. Their suffering barely made the news. For Britain’s chattering classes, education means university. Anything else barely counts.

The gulf between academic and vocational education in the UK has depressed productivity and exacerbated skills shortages. Many of the largest shortages reported by employers are in sectors such as construction, health and IT. Yet only 10 per cent of UK adults hold a higher technical qualification as their highest qualification, compared to around 20 per cent in Germany and a third in Canada. As much as 20 per cent of the UK workforce will be significantly under-skilled for their jobs by 2030.

The government wants to bridge the divide and create a “world-class, German-style further education system”. It has promised a “lifetime skills guarantee” offering free further education courses to adults without A-levels or the equivalent. The challenge is to make them good enough and to offer people who didn’t enjoy school something better the second time around. Until now, the UK has not done this well.

Far from splitting youngsters into fast and slow lanes, the German system gets them on to a dual carriageway of learning. Whether it is university or technical school, they can emerge with fairly similar salaries and status. In striving to emulate this, though, UK ministers must fight their urge to centralise. Like Germany’s Mittelstand of midsize companies, its apprenticeship system is the product of a complex ecology between employers, unions, guilds and local councils.

In the UK, you can set up as a joiner without any qualifications. In Germany you can’t be a carpenter or plumber unless you have mastered the trade in an apprenticeship of around three years, often followed by evening classes. The handwerk curriculum is also guided by master craftsmen who know the job, not pseudo-academics.

In contrast, vocational training in the UK is a Wild West. There are a bewildering array of more than 12,000 different qualifications. Students are often jammed through courses in which “completion”, not actual learning, commands the fee. Sub-contracting is rife, making it hard to monitor quality. There are some excellent courses; but there is also mis-selling. Good further education colleges have also been denuded of funding with their teachers paid less, on average, than their counterparts in schools.

The German system can be inflexible. As the landscape of work changes, it is unlikely that even a gold standard apprenticeship will last a lifetime. Guilds can also feel like closed shops. London’s black cab drivers, perhaps our closest equivalent, are denigrated by those who point out that an Uber driver with a satnav offers a cheaper ride than a cabbie who invested years in learning the back routes. But this overlooks the role of guilds as reserves of community spirit and learning, which can only exist outside of government.

Coronavirus makes change imperative: the furlough scheme is coming to an end and mass unemployment is looming. It will take time to level the playing field between higher and further education. But one immediate priority should be numeracy. Over half of UK adults only have primary school level maths. Worse, we seem to be going backwards: those aged 16 to 34 are less numerate than those aged 45 to 75.

This is alarming. Nurses need maths to measure drip rates and dosages. Administrative assistants must record invoices correctly. Financial illiteracy can leave people struggling to budget, and in debt.

We need to start focusing on skills for life, not for specific jobs. Training materials rarely mention attitude, character or empathy: yet these matter to employers.

Some of the literature about automation also reads as if blue collar skills are already extinct. But they’re not, and artificial intelligence is not going to fix my boiler any time soon. It also strikes me that my hairdresser and my aunt’s carer have a higher emotional intelligence than many professionals whose much-vaunted IQ, dare I say it, may be taken over by machines. In our race to “professionalise” so many jobs, we have undervalued grit and common sense and left behind many people who had a vocation.

At the top end, Britain is extraordinarily successful. We educate some of the world’s best brains, in some of the best universities. But we have also left too many people without opportunity or hope. If you haven’t achieved the equivalent of A-levels by age 18, according to last year’s Augar Review of post-18 education, the chance of proceeding to a higher level of qualifications is “virtually non-existent”. Given longer life expectancies, that’s a very long life sentence.

A full time undergraduate degree has become the ideal for half the UK population. But automation and ageing mean we need a more diverse system, where we can fit courses into our evenings and jobs throughout our lives. Singapore, one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies, has given every citizen a training voucher that can be cashed in at any age, for courses carefully vetted for their actual impact. If the UK government’s lifetime skills guarantee can provide real skills throughout life, the middle classes may come to see that there is more than one road to success.

Letter in response to this article:

A vocational path is to be ‘mistress of your destiny’ / From Giovanna Forte, London E9, UK

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