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Germans get all the last laughs

S.J. Prais, Productivity, education and training: An international perspective, ISBN 0 521 483050 8, Pounds 10.95 Cambridge University Press.

The German word for it is schadenfreude: roughly, pleasure at someone else's sorrow. It shows in the way we laugh when we learn that, for example, the German economy suffered more strikes than us during a given period, or that, as happened recently, our motor vehicle production rate was higher than theirs.

In truth, these smirks issue less from a sense of national superiority than from a surly awareness of the opposite. And, if Sig Prais's Productivity, Education and Training is to be believed, such laughter will ring increasingly hollow.

A dense and often acerbic monograph based on an extensive, cross-national study of educational policies and working practices, it confirms one's worst fears about the standards and consequences of British educational provision: this country is being out-taught, out-thought and out-produced.

Broadly, Professor Prais proposes that increasing automation demands a workforce educated to appropriate standards. But unlike France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and, especially Germany, Britain has not yet taken measures to ensure educational parity with its main industrial competitors. In consequence, students abroad are better equipped to turn out products and services vastly superior to our own.

As well as the material from his own research, the author cites dozens of studies to support his beliefs. Most of the findings are frankly depressing. Compared with many others around the world, British students perform miserably in academic tests. While their overseas equivalents cope easily with simple arithmetical problems, the majority of home students are defeated. It all adds up to "a remarkable record of decline".

Not the least part of this decline relates to business performance. Using extensive research into matching industries in Britain and in Europe, the professor seeks to show that poor students become bad workers. Again, the findings are comfortless. In engineering, furniture, clothing, food manufacture and the hotel trade, our competitors consistently achieve higher standards of output and service. To cap it all, the Germans even make better biscuits than us. No wonder researchers "encountered an air of despondency more often in British than in the Continental firms".

Professor Prais knows precisely where to lay the blame for all this. Basic arithmetic must be re-introduced, he insists, and electronic calculators used less; they stunt students' mathematical development. Equally, a "whole group" approach to teaching, comparable to that favoured on the Continent, should replace the "individualistic" nature of current classroom practice. Nor will vocational education benefit from recent changes.

"The lack of reliability of their testing did not seem to weigh heavily with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications," sniffs the professor, adding that "the 'new' British approach contains elements of a reversion to hoary time-serving traditions, when each master certified his own apprentice on the basis of his own judgment."

It's a disappointingly lame finale after such stirring legwork. Our main economic competitors are surging ahead not only because of dubious classroom practices, but also because of the values granted to certain occupations.

A society that gives greatest prestige to its least science-linked professions - law, banking and management - has scarcely the right to complain at a dearth of good technicians, engineers and designers. Until we remedy that particular defect, the Germans will have the last laugh every time.

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