Britain has been lauding Germany’s approach to education and training ever since a Royal Commission report in 1888. Illiteracy and innumeracy were far too widespread here, it mourned, and there was no German-style national framework to ensure high-level skills and apprenticeships in the industries of today and tomorrow. This endangered British industrial leadership too dependent on laissez-faire economics. There still isn’t that framework, laissez-faire still prevails – and industrial leadership has vanished.
Some 132 years later the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, promised last week to unveil a new approach to post-school education this autumn. It will create, he said, a “world-class, German-style further education system”. The new mantra, he added, should not be “education, education, education” but “further education, further education, further education”.
He mocked the Blairite aim that half of young adults should go to university. What was needed instead was a new emphasis on the other 50%, made to feel that anything less than university was somehow failure. Other skills and aptitudes counted beyond those acquired at university and the economy, and millions of citizens, were suffering because of a collective snobbishness.
Williamson makes a serious point – but he lives in a country in which one in five adults are functionally innumerate and one in six functionally illiterate. At least the university-going half he derides can read and write. Addressing the deficiencies of the other half remains intractable. Last year, only 43% of 16-year-olds achieved a strong pass (grade 5, equivalent to C+, or above) in GCSE English and maths. And trying to remedy the deficiency by finding different skills via on-the-job training, despite improvement over the last decade, remains weak. Only 15% of employers offer apprenticeships.
It is true that the British system is skewed to fast-track those with A-levels and a degree from a Russell Group university to well-rewarded careers, and shamefully neglects the rest. But if Williamson is to succeed after more than a century of failure, he will find the answer lies much deeper than looking at further education. To do better requires a wholesale assault on educational disadvantage that starts when a child is born, along with a revolution by British business in its disdainful, disengaged approach to training and nurturing our young.
Solving the issue goes to the heart of who we British are, and who we want to be.
The government is correctly terrified about economic prospects over the next year; unwinding the furloughing scheme could easily lead to unemployment rising above five million, with 16- to 24-year-olds facing the grimmest time of all. Hence chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £2bn Kickstart programme announced in his extraordinary multibillion package last week, aiming, as he said, to prevent a generation’s job prospects being irredeemably scarred by Covid-19.
The government will pay 16- to 24-year-olds claiming universal credit the appropriate minimum wage (and national insurance contributions) if they take up a six-month work placement. First cousin to New Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, abolished crassly by the coalition government in 2011, it aims to create up to 350,000 placements. Alongside it there are £2,000 bonuses for every apprentice hired. Together the price tag is £3.7bn, with more promised if necessary. Cash is beginning to match the rhetoric.
But Sunak needs to talk to Williamson – and Thérèse Coffey at the Department for Work and Pensions and Alok Sharma at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. As matters stand there is no chance of British business offering 350,000 six-month work placements. This scale of mobilisation is not what British business does, or has ever done – especially in the worst recession for 300 years.
Even Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, with a more generous wage subsidy, managed barely more than 100,000 jobs back in 2010/11. The government is ready to spend transformational money. It should aim for transformational results.
Voluntarism is not going to crack a 132-year-old problem, nor shift British business attitudes. The government has a once-in-a-100-year chance to act
Two Rooseveltian moves are required. The first is to transform business priorities. The British ownership system has long over-prioritised shareholders’ immediate financial interests while undervaluing innovation, training and upskilling. For example, 28 of Britain’s top 100 companies paid out more in dividends and share buybacks last year than their total net income; they are hardly likely to offer work placements to our young. Yet now an estimated half a million businesses, including the top 100, have been in receipt of government job retention funds, grants and emergency loans. The quid pro quo must be an unequivocal reciprocal commitment to offer work and training placements in the Kickstarter programme. It would be game changing.
The second is the creation of an umbrella organisation as a matter of national urgency to marshal those placements, initiate programmes of its own (on the environment, on civic service more generally) and then ensure that every young person in the country – even school and university leavers not on universal credit – gets made an offer.
Only thus is there a chance of creating at least 350,000 work placements in the next 12 months (and in truth we need double the number). This National Youth Corps, echoing Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, should largely be run by young people. And as economic recovery takes hold, it could transmute into the national organisation needed to spearhead the engagement and skilling of Williamson’s left-behind 50%.
More than 60 parliamentarians signed a letter calling on the prime minister to establish just such a National Youth Corps the day before Sunak delivered his statement. They caught the moment and the mood. Voluntarism is not going to crack a 132-year-old problem, nor shift British business attitudes. The government has a once-in-a-100-year chance to act. Last week, Sunak took the first step. Success will require much more radicalism.
•Will Hutton is an Observer columnist