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16 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:58am

Are we heading for a ‘hollow’ workforce?

Last month, the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility found that university students receive £6000 more funding per year than those in vocational education, despite the fact that vocational learners are – at 53% of school leavers – in the majority. The Chair of the committee, Baroness Corston, says this lack of focus on skills is a disaster in the making

By Baroness Corston

If there is one statistic that boils down the divide between academic and vocational education that concerns the social mobility select committee, it is the difference in funding that these two types of education receive. At university level, students are funded at an average of around £8400 per student per year, while full-time students in further education colleges receive about £2150 per year. “We spend £6000 a year less on each student in further education than we do on those going to university,” explains Baroness Corston.

“Schools focus only on A-levels and university; their funding depends on their keeping children in school. And I don’t quarrel with that, but it ignores a very considerable cohort of young people, many of whom follow that route because they think they’re supposed to. We waste £800 million a year on young people who start courses for which they’re entirely unprepared, and they drop out. 

There are alternatives to A-levels and university, and they are credible alternatives. But they should be coherent, accessible and business-friendly,” says Corston. The entrenched progression from A-levels to university to a graduate job is far easy to understand than the bewildering complexity of the UK’s 19,000 vocational qualifications. “For every one GCSE, there are about eight vocational qualifications, and for every A-level there are about six. Young people are navigating a very complex network of qualifications that aren’t understood by employers – organisations told us they often didn’t understand what level they [BTECs, NVQs, GNVQs and VCEs, to name a few] were, or what they were.” 

Corston says the most fundamental skills for entering the workforce are being ignored. “Life skills are the skills which employers tell us they want the most. I have been a passionate devotee of life skills education for 20 years, because it gives people confidence, it makes them better citizens, it teaches them to co-operate, it teaches them time management and to respect other people, and to be ambitious. When we were in government, some of that life skills education did have GCSE equivalents, which I know from my own experience in Bristol [Corston was the MP for Bristol East from 1992-2005] did engage some of those – particularly young boys – who were hard to reach. That was all abolished by Michael Gove, at the stroke of a pen.”

“Skills,” she says, “are important – we want people to be able to make things. So many people have been saying to me in the last 20 years that we’re a knowledge economy; if we’re all knowledge workers, we won’t be making anything, Dyson and Rolls Royce won’t be able to find people to make things. What about plumbers, builders, bricklayers? We need these people, and if we’re inviting them into our homes to do a job, we need to feel that they’re qualified.”

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The highly skilled vocational training that is in such demand at the moment is no cheaper or less difficult to provide than university education – in some cases, quite the opposite. “University is no more expensive than a Rolls-Royce apprenticeship. Rolls-Royce has to employ people to train these young people. They don’t just stand there, watching someone who’s a skilled engineer. They have to be taught.” 

With vocational training lacking funding and proper organisation, Corston says there has been a ‘hollowing out’ of the workforce, as the gap between unskilled workers and highly qualified graduates widens. Intermediate roles, she says, can help bridge the gap: “when we were in government, we started giving nurses intermediate roles doing jobs that were previously done by doctors. We recruited teaching assistants, who didn’t have teaching qualifications but who supported teachers. We introduced the notion of the Police Community Support Officer, who didn’t have the same powers of arrest as a police officer, but were in a supportive role. It’s fair to say that those professions were at the time resistant to those changes, but they now accept them completely. There are now, particularly with the growth of information technology, fewer of those intermediate roles available. So the young people who are coming out of school without relevant qualifications, who don’t go on to university – if they don’t have family connections that allow them to do decent work experience, or if their parents don’t have business contacts that help them to get a job, then it’s no wonder  that, as it was reported two weeks ago, upwards social mobility has gone down in the last few years from 17% to 15%.” 

The committee also heard from hundreds of young people about their experiences of apprenticeships. The evidence they gathered, says Corston, left her “truly shocked. My dad left school getting on for 100 years ago, and his apprenticeship was for five years. I grew up in Yeovil, in Somerset – young boys of my generation went to do apprenticeships at Westland Aircraft, for four years. So I had in my head the notion that an apprenticeship really was a training for a craft, or a skill, or engineering. And then I met these young people: there was one girl who told me that she had done apprenticeships, each of which lasted six weeks. One was an apprenticeship in wrapping vegetables. One was arranging flowers into bunches for a supermarket. One was working in a stable, where she swept the floor, and one was working in an office, where every single employee apart from the managing director was an apprentice on £3 an hour. Now, to me, that is massaging employment figures, it is not apprenticeship.” The situation is changing, she acknowledges, with the imposition of the Apprenticeship Levy to create longer, higher-quality apprenticeships. “But at the moment, we’re starting in some cases from a very low base.”

What’s needed, says Corston, is a more flexible school system that allows people to begin experiencing relevant, work-based training from the age of 14. She points to the example of her own grandson, who – on her advice ­- left school at 16 to do a furniture-making course: ”it was two days a week, for two years. What does he do for the other three days a week for two years? Hang around the streets? Wouldn’t it be better if he could spend the other three days a week for two years improving his academic education, which he would be very happy to do, because it would be alongside learning a skill which he wants for life?”

It is currently possible for school pupils to engage in “day-release schemes” with companies like Rolls-Royce, she says, “which obviously motivate and interest young people. They might decide that they are going to focus for the rest of the week, because it’s running alongside something that is 

going to prepare them for the world of work.” Only in these instances does Corston see the highly trained skills that businesses need being given equal footing with A-levels in academic subjects.

Overall, she says, ensuring that we have a well-trained workforce is “one of the great imperatives of our age. When we came to power in 1997, the proportion of people going to university in this country was lower than that of South Korea. That Labour government really tried to do something about that, by encouraging kids from communities where no-one had been to university to do so, and it was wonderful. Now, the time has come where we say that we don’t neglect those young people, but we don’t focus exclusively on them. There are other things we will need in the modern world besides university graduates.” 

Skills and social mobility: the numbers

The House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility found that:

47% of graduates were employed in jobs which do not normally require higher education qualifications

532,300 people entered higher education in the UK in 2015, the highest number ever recorded

There are 19,000 regulated adult vocational qualifications in England

6% of 16–19 year olds started an apprenticeship in 2014/5

35% of 18 year olds applied for university in the same period

£2.73 is the hourly minimum wage for apprentices. The national minimum wage is £6.70 an hour

30% of UK students take vocational training. 75% of German students take vocational training. 

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