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Historic spanners in the works

Politicians usually exaggerate. Hyperbole, or at least embellishment, are two of the occupational skills that they must master. But when Michael Heseltine talks of trying to tackle a national skills deficit that has existed for 100 years he is actually underestimating.

It is now nearly 160 years since the first alarm bell was set ringing by German visitors who said they were amazed that British schools did not offer subjects that would advance the "manufacturing tendencies".

At that stage child factory workers were lucky to get two hours' schooling a day. Rich men's sons were, of course, sent to public school to learn Latin and Greek, and as historians such as Correlli Barnett and Martin Wiener have pointed out, that hardly helped to maintain Britain's position as the number one manufacturing nation. Even Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineer of the age, ensured that his own sons learned little about his oily trade by sending them to Harrow.

Mechanics Institutes were set up in the first half of the 19th century but the initiative foundered because the young workers who might have benefited most from such teaching were only semi-literate. The alarm bells therefore sounded louder during the closing decades of the 19th century. A Royal Commission on schooling in 1868 reported: "Our industrial classes have not even the basis of a sound general education on which alone technical education can rest."

The message never really got through, however. In 1890 local authorities were allowed to spend "whisky money" - a spirits tax - on technical education. But the First World War provided frightening proof that such half-hearted measures had left us miles behind the Germans. By 1914 we were almost wholly dependent on them for such industrial staples as ball-bearings.

After the war the old pattern reasserted itself. The 1918 Education Act held out the promise of continuation schools that would produce skilled and educated workers but that dream was never fulfilled. In the 1940s there seemed to be a new realisation that Britain would only prosper if it had an able workforce but history repeated itself after the Second World War when the technical schools due to be set up under the tripartite system failed to materialise.

The shock of Russia's Sputnik helped to launch a range of measures - both here and in the US - designed to restore the West's technological and scientific lead. In 1964 the state finally accepted responsibility for industrial training. But the same old spanners in the works (complacency and the low status of industrial careers) ensured that the number of British employees with mechanical and engineering qualifications continued to decline during the 1970s and 1980s.

Since then Conservative governments - urged on by James Callaghan's clarion call at Ruskin College in 1976 - have undoubtedly placed far more emphasis on "education for capability". But history suggests that the British will need a greater shock than can be applied by an annual white paper before they mend their ways.

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