The microchips are down
IT WAS a bleak end to July for Tyneside. The closure of the Siemens microchip plant with the loss of 1100 jobs was a devastating blow for the north of England.
The economic impact has yet to be fully assessed and there is always the possibility that a buyer could be found for the Pounds 1.1 billion plant that was only opened a mere 15 months ago. However, the region is not holding its breath. The price of the memory chips which the factory produced had fallen to $1.20 from the $70 price in 1995 when the company had first decided to invest in North Tyneside.
Siemens itself developed a good reputation in the area. Its senior managers were good, if not uncritical, friends of the education world. Their vision of a skills-based future for the region found many supporters.
Yet, in the end Siemens was done in, not by a feckless, underdeveloped workforce but by international forces far outside the control of a single company or government. The Tyneside people have seen that even a billion pound investment less than two years ago is as nothing to a major company faced with massive worldwide losses.
In a region where teachers are battling against an anti-education climate in many areas, Siemens now appears to offer a message of despair. Why bother to improve your education when the unemployment rate in the region is nearly double the national average and a multinational company is prepared to write off a major investment in such a short time?
There needs to be a recognition that the regions of the UK will always be subject to the vagaries of international markets and currencies. Developments like Siemens appeared to be a vision of the future that seemed to work. But the North Tyneside plant was actually just a mass-production factory which was not in the value-added part of the business. So, in the end, the value of sterling was the final straw for a branch factory in the north of England.
Tyneside has a pressing need to address issues such as unemployment and low investment, particularly as it has one of the lowest output rates per head of population in Europe. The education system has to work productively with incoming employers. This was certainly the case with Siemens: the training and enterprise council, local further education colleges and education authorities came together to work with the company.
There is always a danger in being seduced by the high-profile investor who comes in, willing to spend hundreds of millions on a major new development. If that investment is coupled with a message that the future lies in their sector, it is tempting to divert time and attention away from less spectacular but more profound changes which are necessary in the education and skills field.
The reality is that any modern economy is a complex mixture of industries. Some will be international companies like Siemens with no real roots in the area. Others will be like Nissan, based in Sunderland, which is now well-established not least because of a highly-developed network of suppliers. Each region will also have its own particular strengths which, in the north of England include an important manufacturing base alongside strong service and public sectors.
Perhaps there is a more profound point here that could be addressed by the new regional development agencies. Crucially, they will have a role to play in devising a strategy for skills in their regions. To succeed, the RDAs must work with schools to avoid the danger that teachers will be pulled in a myriad different directions. With "joined-up thinking" all the rage, the RDAs must talk to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority about the future of the school curriculum.
It is an old cliche, but the education and training sectors must make sure that people have the necessary core skills to fit them for employment, at the same time as ensuring that they have specific skills that will be particularly marketable in the local context. Clearly this will never be fixed in stone, but the key local services and industries provide the best basis on which to build the local economy.
This is is an important message for the schools system. Already many headteachers express frustration at the continual carping from the business community about the quality of young people leaving school. However, to overcome such problems, the most productive partnerships are likely to be between schools and local employers who both have firm roots in an area and have a forward and outward-looking perspective.
Ironically, for all the good that Siemens did even in a short time, it still had to import many of its workers. At the time, robust criticisms were made of the local workforce - with accusations being made that too many people were still locked into old ways of thinking and were unwilling to retrain and become adaptable. While that might generate a hollow laugh today, there was, and is, still an important point to be made.
Too many young people still leave school with inadequate skills in literacy, numeracy and communication. Massive subsidies for incoming companies might, at times, be better spent on early education. That is why the national literacy strategy is such an important economic investment for the future, So, a bleak time for the north of England. This is an area which has already been subject to massive change with many of the social scars to show for it. The experience with Siemens makes it more important than ever that we grow our own industries of the future. That means investing in skills and developing young talent.
To do that, it is vital that school, communities and industry co-operate at a strategic - regional - level. Equally important, however, is the message that the skills of the teacher are needed more than ever.
David Bell is director of education and libraries for Newcastle City Council