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Keeping up with the Schmidts – response to apprentice article in The Economist

Westminster is trying to replicate aspects of Germany’s apprentice system but it is not working. Should it even try? Will Stirling looks at the recent evidence.

This article in The Economist published April 26 illustrates the difficulties with copying systems that work in other countries.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, apprenticeships, while popular with large companies, were not championed. Culturally, society tended to see an apprenticeship as ‘what you do if you can’t get the grades’ at GCSE. Many still think like this.

While the number of apprenticeships in Britain has climbed from 280,000, when the coalition government came into office in 2010, to over 500,000 today, the article criticises David Cameron and Co for two main shortcomings.

Firstly, most of these apprenticeships are Level 2, broadly equivalent to GCSEs. This is not equitable to an apprenticeship in Germany, where there is one standard across the country and all sectors, with a minimum duration of three years. Some, but not many, UK apprenticeships are Level 3 (on par with A Levels) and very few are Level 4 plus (degree level).

Secondly, too many companies and organisations have taken advantage of a system that was flawed. The government has doubled funding provision for apprenticeships = good. Training providers take the money and offer training to employers as prescribed courses and subjects. But quite often the training course is too narrow and not employer-focused enough. Organisations have been accused of becoming training providers just to qualify for the funding, and industry claims the money has been wasted. This explains the why the Employer Ownership of Skills pilot was launched – now in Round 4 – that gives employers funding to tailor-make their own training.

Morrisons, one company, is responsible for one in 10 apprentice starts in the whole UK, and these people are not being trained in hard, ‘value adding’ skills.

Partly due to the disillusionment of industry in this training funding, between 2011 and 2013 investment in training by employers fell by £2.4 billion, and the number of job vacancies without qualified applicants rose from 91,000 to 146,000.

The author rightly highlights the strengths of Germany’s vocational training. A simpler hierarchy of stages to reach the top grade, be it “Ingenieur” or the equivalent in banking or insurance, the pathways and stages are clear. The mighty Handelskammer – an organisation with a budget that dwarfs that of the British business support organs – has a specific mandate to deliver and monitor vocational training. Through compulsory membership of the DIHK – unpalatable to some, but effective – German companies find it difficult to fail to maintain standards – the Handelskammer will find them out. Britain does not have such a robust policing authority.

It is a shame the author did not acknowledge the excellent University Technical Colleges, established by the Baker Dearing Education Trust several years ago.

There are 16 UTCs now, and 47 will have launched by 2016. These engineering schools cover the secondary school map of ages 13 to 18 and follow the national curriculum for GCSEs, but with a strong bent for STEM, engineering-based and IT courses. Each has a speciality: the Silverstone UTC for example, specialises in high performance engineering and business and technical events management – no rpizes for guessing in which industry these youngsters may end up working.

Languages and the main swathe of subjects are covered, not there is less art, more science.

The first one, actually initiated by Lord Anthony Bamford, the JCB Academy in Rocester, posted extraordinary GCSE results in its first academic year – 99% of students achieved grades A* to C in maths and English.

This is the British answer to the successful German Berufsschule, one of the mainstays of Germany’s five school education system, that directs children with practical engineering aptitude into a route to industry and manufacturing.

In Germany it seems – although I may be wrong – parents and kids do not place the Berufsschule on a lower rung than a conventional secondary school education (the Gymnasium). People understand its role and its parity.

With UTCS, far from being perceived as playing second fiddle to the normal secondaries, colleges like the JCB Academy and Black Country UTC are heavily oversubscribed. Indeed, the JCB Academy was criticised by several schools in its catchment area for poaching the brightest 13-year old pupils when it launched. Students come from up to 50-miles away to study here, leaving home at 0700 in some cases. It proves a vocational path to industry not only exists but is proving really popular.

The Economist article says that Britain should play to her strengths.

“Its strong services sector tends to reward people with general skills, lowering the perceived value of specific, technical ones. And its flexible labour market enables employees to move around more freely, making it harder to pin them down for extended periods of training. The Germany-fanciers of Whitehall—perhaps without noticing it—are running up against their country’s own strengths.”

You can have labour market flexibility and a strong services sector and an engineering- or vocational-led education. They are not mutually exclusive.

Will Stirling

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A conference planned by the German British Forum in autumn 2014 on the power of mid-sized companies in Britain and Germany, as a force for jobs and growth in the European Union, will examine the differences of the German-British education systems, and what each can learn from the other.

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