In Will Hutton's analysis of this country's economic ills, The State We're In, there is a section on Inequality and Training. Observing the Government's lamentable effort in this area, he suggests that, "by international standards, there are fewer places for them (British students) on vocational training schemes and the levels of technical competence demanded to achieve any given qualification are at the lower end of the spectrum".
Seen from a rather different perspective, Phil Mizen's analysis leads him to identify the chasm that exists between the objectives of the early 1980s for the revolutions in training provisions and the current reality. Despite the claims of success, the picture he observed was one of many school leavers being "subjected to the disciplines and impositions of a period of training dominated by the demands of low skilled work experience, rather than the promise of quality skills".
The author made an empirical study of two groups of young people in Coventry. One group was of pupils nearing the end of their compulsory period of schooling and the other involved trainees near the end of their first year's youth training. It should be said that the group samples were,for various reasons given, small.
Nevertheless, the young people gave a range of insights from their school days spent in the child labour market. Their experiences were elicited to test the "deficiency" model of young workers, as articulated by employers who list the various attributes that are apparently missing from the armoury of the would-be employees. On the strength of the student experiences, Mizen suggests that it is not the school leavers who are lacking in the qualities needed to find work, because many have already found jobs and managed to hold them down successfully.
The next chapter contains an examination of working class resistance to youth training which, it was acknowledged, had been a feature of the schemes' development. The chapter is headed "Reluctant Trainees" and more or less describes the mood of those who eventually enter. Unsurprisingly, pressure from mass unemployment, fruitless job searches, application refusals, a deep-seated fear of doing nothing, peer pressure and dislike of school, are all seen as compelling reasons for joining a YT scheme.
The book's sub-title, "In and Against the Training State", derives from this reluctance to participate and is a central aspect of the research. This is considered in detail in a chapter with the self-explanatory title, "Participating in a skills Revolution or Against Low-skilled Work Experience". The role of off-the-job training, often represented here as bolt-on, irrelevant and under-resourced, was clearly under fire. I recognise the familiar problem but would argue for integration, relevance and necessary resources.
Skipping over two interesting chapters, "Youth Training for Jobs" (in which young people doubt such an outcome) and "Training with No Money" (in which young people confirm the title's accuracy), we reach the author's final conclusions, which confirm the existence of the chasm.
Although I did not learn anything very new, the empirical approach did illustrate the problems vividly, providing a fresh look at an issue that has become rather low profile since responsibility was transferred to quango-land from the more publicly-accountable Manpower Services Commission. Phil Mizen, in directing his strictures about necessary reforms towards the Labour Party and wider labour movement, did not underestimate the difficulties. Nor should anybody else.
Derek Betts is head of policy at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.