‘Doing it better than the Germans’. Gavin Williamson and pies in the sky.

Over a third of German secondary school students go on to a vocational/technical programme.  Now, Gavin Williamson, the latest in what is getting to be a long line of Tory education ministers, has promised that UK young people will have even better opportunities than young Germans, by the end of the next decade.



He plans to do this by creating ‘Institutes of Technology’ in every large city – extending an idea that first appeared in the 2016 Post-16 Skills plan, published by the Cameron government and then adopted by Teresa May.

Mr Williamson has a Herculean task, if not one that’s just pie in the sky!  Only a handful of 16 year and 17-year olds leave school for an apprenticeship, while the number of those starting one at 19 is but a small fraction of those enrolling for university. It’s true that thousands of 16 to 18-year-olds study BTEC type courses every year, often studying in combination with an A-level. But rather than leading to employment, BTECs have also provided opportunities for thousands to progress to HE – but to the ‘new’ universities of the 1990s, not Oxbridge or the Russells.

(As Williamson acknowledges) attempts by both Conservative and Labour governments to establish a high-status vocational pathway on a par with Germany, have been a disaster, with nothing to suggest the new T-levels will be any different.  In fact, when new qualifications have  begun establishing themselves –like GNVQ for example, they’ve been repackaged and relaunched in new formats.

But Williamson clearly has little understanding of how German vocational and technical training has been organised – and as a ‘free-market’ Tory,  won’t subscribe to the ideas of a ‘social -partnership’ through which employers, trade unions, local and national governments have constructed  a system which bestows a ‘licence to practice’ and thus enables school leavers , unlike their UK counterparts, to make a transition to established  employment.

In contrast, rather than being part of wider social relationships and encompassing rights and responsibilities,UK vocational qualifications are merely ‘credentials’ which compared to academic certificates,  continue to have Cinderella status whatever Mr Williamson thinks. Thus, schools, conscious of the need to protect their A-level grades will continue to encourage ‘lower performing’ students to follow alternative courses of study.

But if 21st century employment patterns are anything to go by, many of the ‘middle jobs’ that vocational qualification have been designed to correspond with, will continue to disappear, meaning there is even less reason for trying to reinvent the vocational pathway and more need for a good ‘general’ education for everybody. This would also require the reform of the ‘academic track’ –but the Tories  (nor Labour) have no plans for this.



2 thoughts on “‘Doing it better than the Germans’. Gavin Williamson and pies in the sky.

  1. You could add ‘Only just over’ to ‘a third of German school leavers go on to a vocational technical programme’ and even less to a bona fide waged apprenticeship guaranteeing permanent employment. This indicates that the much vaunted ‘dual system’ of vocational-technical training in employment and at (poly)technical institutions, as against academic/ grammar schooling followed by academic higher education, is collapsing under the impact of reforms to the country’s labour market. As a result, Germany – despite its continued high productivity – is following the Anglo-American road to a ‘flexiblised’ labour market of increasingly part-time, insecure, unskilled and temporary employment. This is also affecting young men and women differentially in often stereotyped employment as well as domestically. I know the English youth labour market which, as you often say, never recovered from the collapse of heavy industry and its associated apprenticeships – mainly for young men – in the 1980s, is still crap by comparison – adding the parlous position of heavily indebted higher education students who often in England, Wales and Northern Ireland gain little labour market leverage from often inadequate and exorbitantly expensive under- and then post-graduate courses – but I think Germany decreasingly offers a model for vocational education that can be taken for granted and should be subjected to some critique; albeit much can be learned from its 70-year post-war history of social partnership between the state and employers under trades union regulation. Otherwise there is a danger it is taken for granted as an example of social beneficence in the way that everything Scandinavian was for long seen as a social-democratic nirvana. As you also say, instead of once again trying to resuscitate the vocational route in the UK (because this applies also in Scotland), we should ask instead what sort of a general education in state comprehensive primary and secondary schools will best prepare school leavers to develop fully as individuals in a democratic society, able to meet the variety of labours that they are likely to be confronted with in their lifetimes, to meet and master rapid changes in production, while at the same time ‘giving free scope to their own natural and acquired powers’, as was once said, but to which can now be added in circumstances requiring social adaptation and mobilisation unparalleled in peacetime in order to avert climate catastrophe.

  2. I’d agree that the German system ( and the ‘social partnership’ that underpins it) will increasingly come under pressure from ‘global’ changes to production and labour organisation, but I don’t agree its ‘collapsing’ and certainly not for these reasons. On the contrary it seems to be astonishingly durable. Over a third of school leavers take up apprenticeships, but it appears that significant numbers of graduates also start them – so apprenticeships are still an important (the most important?) route into employment and a key reason why youth unemployment is so low. Some reports indicate that employers (almost 500 000 of them are involved in schemes) can’t fill vacancies because more young Germans are now opting for HE.

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