The Secretary of State’s Conservative Party conference speech unveiled an ambition to overtake Germany by 2029 in the technical and vocational education opportunities we offer.  His objective is laudable, but what does it mean, and is it achievable?

The first thing to note is that we have been here before.  Since at least the 1880s and the Samuelson Commission, we have cast envious glances at overseas vocational systems and witnessed calls to match or better them in pursuit of economic success.  Back in 1984, The Institute of Manpower Studies produced Competence and Competition, which benchmarked us against the USA, Germany and Japan.  We came out badly.  The Leitch Review of skills (2006) demanded that we be in the top 8 for each different level of skill across the OECD by 2020.  We are not set to achieve this, except probably in higher education.

Gavin Williamson, wisely, does not seem to be claiming that we should copy the German vocational education and training (VET) system, but that our own arrangements need to match and then better what theirs achieves.  This is still a tall order.

Many of the elements upon which successful vocational education systems are founded – in Germany but also in other developed countries – are currently lacking in England.  They include policy stability; supportive cultural expectations among employers, young people and parents that have been built up over time; and a consensus around policy objectives and the means to best pursue them based on social partnership models and the sharing of power between government and other stakeholders.  None of these has been in evidence here in recent times.

We lack the incentive structures that would power these kinds of behaviours

More importantly, other countries expect a great deal more from their employers than we do, and this is often enshrined in obligations and duties supported by legislation.  For example, the quality of German apprenticeships is underpinned by requirements that firms have a qualified trainer to deliver the on-the-job elements. More generally, the German dual system of apprenticeships is based on real employer leadership, and this in turn relies upon time-hallowed forms of collective employer organisation, not least through the local chambers of commerce and handicrafts, (membership of which is mandated by law) that we do not possess.  The evidence to date suggests that incentivising English firms to take an active role in VET is by no means simple of easy and will require effort and persistence, as well as a different approach to the collective organisation and representation of employers than that which currently pertains.

Besides re-thinking the deal or balance of responsibilities around skill formation that the state strikes with employers, what else might be needed to deliver on the Secretary of State’s objectives?  The first, predictably, is cash.  World class VET will not be delivered on the cheap, and besides higher levels of funding the upper-secondary phase may need to be seen as a fully funded three-year entitlement (i.e. 16-19) in order to get far more young people in FE to Level 3 and above, as is the norm elsewhere.

The second covers designing, agreeing and re-engineering incentives to support virtuous behaviour. These have to go beyond public subsidy, and might, for example, include wider support for training through public procurement.  We need to engineer a world where employers and a labour market consistently reward skills acquisition.  We need firms who will act as partners, co-producers, and providers of workplaces that offer rich, expansive learning environments.  We need education and training providers who cooperate in the best interests of the learner, locality and labour market.  Most of the successful overseas VET systems are just that – systems that operate with limited levels of competition and which encourage cooperation and seamless pathways.  At present, we lack the incentive structures that would power these kinds of behaviours, and we have much to learn from Germany and elsewhere in fashioning these.  We also need to accept that spraying a new layer of institutions – like Institutes of Technology – on top of a set of local, regional and sectoral marketplaces is at best a very small part of any solution. 

Finally, we need a persistent approach.  2029 offers a sensible timeframe for what is being attempted.  Real revolutions are long-term projects not quick fixes, of which we have had far too many in the past.