The porter of yesterday has become the fork-lift truck driver of today, and will tomorrow be the computer controller of an automated warehouse. The speed of change in the revolution that started with the invention of the microchip has increased the need for skilled workers. Many countries have recognised this by extending their learning leaving age to 18; something England will do in 2015.
At present, according to figures from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, a large number of young people in the UK still quit learning at 16. Fewer than 50 per cent of 18-year-olds are still in education, leaving the UK standing in the shadow of other EU countries, such as Sweden and Poland, where more than 90 per cent stay on. Most European countries have between 70 and 90 per cent of their 18-year-olds still in education.
Of course, it all depends on what you consider as education. Figures for 2008 from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that nearly 44 per cent of those aged 18 in England were still in full-time education, with almost another 20 per cent in other training, mostly work-based or employer funded. A further 20 per cent were in employment, but not receiving training, and nearly 17 per cent were neither employed nor in education or training. That group alone would seem to be sufficient to put England towards the bottom of the European league table.
If we are to retain our place as the sixth-largest manufacturing nation, the staying-on rate will have to improve. Our world-class university system will need to be backed by a world-class education and training framework for the 50 per cent not heading for university. Every Nobel Prize-winning scientist needs an equally skilled team of technicians to support them.
John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.