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Education, education, education

25 November 2010

Last week, I chose to focus on skills in this column and that prompted a number of responses from newsletter readers. With John Hayes, minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning, promising in a speech last month to “create more apprenticeships than modern Britain has ever seen”; and with Michael Gove’s White Paper seeking wide reforms of our education system still hot off the press as I write this, I thought it appropriate to return to the subject and let my correspondents pick up the threads. First off, Aled Davies Griffiths offered this thoughtful defence of the apprenticeship and a strengthened role for existing and new Craft Guilds.

As the old saying goes, what goes round comes round, this age old initiative seems to circumnavigate Mrs Thatcher's legacy of doing away with the Industrial Training Boards and apprentice schemes, as she probably saw apprentices in part as being a pot of potential young plebeian union activist in the making. What a national mistake and shame as many of our youngsters have since missed out on the chance of creating a proper career and above board business opportunities for themselves on the back of the confidence and pride that a recognised and trusted apprenticeship can give.

I am not advocating another quango, but for my part the ITB brought about value added benefits through directed investment in young people by industry via the creation of a national standard for apprentice training, something we are now suffering for not having, given our demographics and skills gap which only exacerbates our ability to produce high value products at a competitive price leading to sustained growth of our GDP through the tried and trusted trading of real goods - not just services.

The Industrial Training Boards of the 1970s worked well for those who participated in their schemes. Many of us who completed their apprenticeships at the time and lucky enough to remain within their chosen industry have moved up the ladder to become highly skilled craftsmen, technicians, engineers and managers.

It goes without saying that there is no substitute for planned and structured on-the-job training; so yes, please bring back apprenticeships. But this must not become an excuse or badge for cheap labour in meaningless, low-skill short term jobs, which exploit the young in our society, or give them false hopes - as did the YTS. If the concept of proper formal apprenticeships are to return to our country they must be officially recognised, as once were the time-served, indentured workplace apprenticeships. Any such scheme must, however, allow for further academic education in the latest technological state-of-the-art, with provisions for learning (through day or block release) and with modules allowing for practical projects and exercises from the workplace.

Today there appears to be only one path to a successful career, which gives far too much emphasis and importance to the 'education industry' with its academic text book learning approach, which does not always reflect the practicalities of real life work responsibilities or hands-on experience. So we need to redress the balance and create other paths of opportunity for our young people. Every post graduate I have had through my department has needed at least 2 to 3 years experience before it could be said that they had reached an acceptable level of competence and started to contribute to the business.

So, supported by industry and government alike, why not bring back the London City & Guild Craft and Technical style apprenticeships with an education path leading up to a degree? This will surely serve both the interests of businesses and society in a cost effective and balanced approach by providing a platform for equal opportunities for development of the skills and provisions for higher education we need as a country. At the same time, it will give a choice of optional career paths, which meets with everyone's interests, needs and expectations. Not everyone will be able to ever afford or want to indebt themselves with £9,000 tuition fees.
The lack of trusted skilled apprentice trained crafts men and women is, in my opinion, why there are so many rough traders around. They have filled the gap left by what were once recognised skills. The unscrupulous opportunists in society have being given the green light carry out almost unregulated activities, deliver a bad job, charge an extortionate amount of money for it - and get away with it.

So, whatever happened to the accountability of the Craft Guilds that were once so revered and respected in our country and beyond? To stop this erosion and reinstate our trust in a ‘fair and honest job for a fair day’s pay’, why not giveback to our Trade Guilds sufficient legal powers that they once had to govern their trades and provide the standards for modern proper apprenticeships in their own field of skill and knowledge.

Supported and largely financed by industry via tax incentives (as was the ITB), let’s start the political will and creation of a business process by providing a legal mandate for the commissioning of new Charters to existing and future new Trade Guilds for the promotion and creation of modern and proper apprenticeships for tomorrow’s skilled workforce. Further, to give additional legal powers to the London City and Guild to oversee the various Guilds on a national basis without any direct political interference.

So, I totally agree with Mr Hayes; bring back proper apprenticeships, and let’s hope it’s not just another load of rhetoric for individual political profiling.

At the beginning of my piece last week, I referred to that perennial subject – the status of the ‘engineer’. Newsletter reader, Rod Dalitz has his own views about the relative value of scientist, engineer, and technician.

At the highest level, the person who runs a silicon fab or chemical plant is a technician, who tunes and optimises the plant for maximum effectiveness, and creates profit by so doing. He has a huge day-to-day responsibility but is not creative.

The engineer designs the chip, or the product, or the chemical process, which is a longer-term off-line responsibility. At the highest level, the engineer is creative, and the company existence ultimately depends on this creativity.

The scientist is by far the most creative, seeking new principles and ideas, which are often very long term and may not lead to profit for twenty or fifty years. Even at the highest level, the scientist has no pressing responsibility beyond ethical conduct, and if he fails to deliver, there is a community in which someone else is likely to make a similar discovery.

I particularly contrast this spectrum against the medical profession, of which the majority - and especially dentists - should be seen as technicians, doing a job of great practical importance (not least to the patient) but which is rarely creative, rather the application of standard procedures and existing knowledge.

Somehow the greatest rewards go to the banker, the accountant, the stockbroker, those for whom creativity might be seen as a serious defect.

Quite so!

Finally, I angered one of my readers last week when I made what, with hindsight, was a bit of a throwaway remark about the state of our education system. I had picked up on a report that companies were contacting the CBI with concerns about the lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills among the young people coming into their organisations. I said that this was “an indictment of our costly education system”. Ian Baker thought this a “cheap jibe” and pointed out that it ignored the hard work of many dedicated teachers who strive imaginatively to engage their pupils; he believes it is rather an indictment of our society and its parenting skills that so many children at school do not benefit from the opportunities given to them.

This is a fair point, but if Ofsted's latest Annual Report is to be believed, the quality of teaching in schools and colleges is still too variable. The report says that teaching is “still no better than satisfactory” in half of secondary schools, 43% of primaries and 43% of colleges that were inspected this year. So, while a great number of teachers excel in their profession and are an inspiration to their pupils, an almost equal number of their colleagues are clearly not. Moreover, with some nine per cent of schools serving the most disadvantaged communities being described by Ofsted as “outstanding” (the overall figure is 13 per cent), then can we justifiably blame society and parenting for all the ills of poor achievement?

Les Hunt

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