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Laundering job as the Government comes clean

Ian Nash studies the small printof Michael Heseltine's skills audit.

If that light shines on uncomfortable truths, so be it." Those 10 well-chosen words in the skills audit for the competitiveness White Paper signalled the Government's preparedness for Opposition attacks and accusations of 17 years of Tory misrule.

And so they came - even before the ink was dry on the much-leaked report on the audit by the Department for Education and Employment and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine's Cabinet Office competitiveness unit.

They compared educational levels in the UK, United States, France, Germany, Singapore and, to a more limited extent, Japan.

Many, including some ministers, saw the release of such potentially damning information so close to the general election as folly. And on the eve of the White Paper launch, David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman, made the first strike.

He told a Confederation of British Industry conference: "The Government has failed to rise to the challenge of creating a skilled workforce."

The report itself is a brilliantly-crafted damage-limitation exercise, with the most damning statistics on competitiveness, the international standing of this country's industries and the detail of the skills audit buried deep in the appendices.

It may lack the magnitude of the Scott inquiry into the MPs' cash-for-questions scandal but its tightly argued 133 pages serve the same purpose as the Government response on that occasion - to come clean, yet put a neutralising spin on potentially damaging statistics before the critics get their oar in. When critics did riposte, there was already a touch of the passe in their thrust.

The light of the report first shone on some heartening truths: the UK was better than the rest for higher education, it had a stronger system of lifetime learning than either France or Germany, and employers thought young people were particularly strong in information technology skills. And before ministers got to spelling out the downside, there was more: a major programme of education and training reforms was in place to tackle more than a century's neglect of this country's training needs.

That puts the blame squarely on everyone's shoulders - including the Liberals, who were last in power as a single party in 1916. What could the Tories be expected to achieve in a mere 17 years? "Give us more time," is the message neatly delivered by both the report and Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Now the ground was firmly set to deliver the caveats. "But there are also areas where more still needs to be done," Mrs Shephard said at the launch of the White Paper.

"At level 2 [GCSE and equivalents] we have fewer people qualified than France or Germany, though the studies of particular sectors found few differences in actual skills between the three countries. Multi-national employers still see relative weaknesses in some key work-related skills."

But what about the most basic skills of literacy and numeracy? The child who started school when the Tories came to power has now graduated. The report hails UK successes here, with a threefold expansion to one-third of all school-leavers entering higher education over those years.

Education reforms were very quickly on the Tory agenda with numerous initiatives from the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative to the national curriculum being pushed through specifically to make education more responsive to industry's needs.

And yet, when 40 multinationals were asked to rate the basic skills of recruits (40 points for good, 20 for adequate and 10 for poor), the UK came bottom along with the US, mustering only between 21 and 23 points for all assessments. France was next, hitting the mid-20s, Germany and Singapore hit the high 20s to mid-30s and Japan came top with ratings between 34 and 40 per cent.

Moreover, the differences in perceived standards of literacy and numeracy were virtually identical for new recruits and adults. This must surely raise questions about the efficacy of the reforms pushed through and about Mrs Shephard's unerring confidence that the latest round of reforms will bring bigger improvements.

For real improvements, it was necessary, Mrs Shephard insisted, to look to those "not captured by the audit figures". From 1990 to 1995 there was a rise in the proportion of young people reaching level 2 from 52 per cent to 67 per cent.

Achievements at level 3 (A-level or equivalent) were perhaps more impressive, as proportions rose from 30 per cent to 44 per cent over the same period. The figures for 18-year-olds taking part in education and training also rose from 45 per cent to 60 per cent.

Improved staying-on rates have had some impact for several years, the skills audit shows, particularly with the level 3 achievements among young adults. But then this is true for other countries, not just the UK. In fact, France, Germany, Singapore and the US are improving faster. At level 2 or GCSE, the UK is still substantially behind its European neighbours. Some 58 per cent of 19 to 21-year-olds have reached the grade, compared with 66 per cent in Germany and 78 per cent in France.

Among 25 to 28-year-olds, the difference is more striking with 53 per cent of the UK population at at least level 2, while France has 79 per cent and Germany has 80 per cent. Germany is most impressive for vocational attainment at these ages, largely because of its much-praised apprenticeship system. France wins out on general education.

What the UK figures show is that anyone who reaches level 3 has excellent access to higher education, while those who fail or drop out have poor prospects for improvement and skills upgrading compared with their peers overseas.

While there was an apparent UK lead in lifetime learning systems, there is little evidence in the skills audit report that this compensates for earlier failures adequately enough to give the UK a competitive edge.

Although the authors of the skills audit cannot - and does not try to - single out issues or attach blame, the message is clear: the rot starts with the failure in basic skills. "The greatest concerns about basic skills expressed on our visits were in the UK and the US," the report says.

Since the report's data are based largely on people already in their twenties and in the workforce, it is difficult to predict how the education and training reforms will impact on the figures.

But, as Mr Heseltine told the House of Commons when he launched the competitiveness white paper: "The report shows we are doing better than in the past, but that we need to continue to improve our performance, particularly in basic literacy and numeracy and key skills."

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