It could be synchronicity but when I started writing this article yesterday I had no idea that the topic I had chosen would be in today’s London Evening Standard, 5th March 2019: “Why we need re-educating on apprenticeships,” wrote Niki Chesworth, taking the words right of my mouth!
Conscious from an early age that I needed an education, my own in Bangladesh being interrupted by our war of liberation and the events that arose from it, I spent many years while working full time getting GCSEs and then a diploma and a degree. This led me to look at and think about the whole subject of where this country is headed in terms of education at all levels. I had a clear idea of what I wanted in terms of a career and structured my learning to suit that. Even at that time though, the 1980s, I clearly saw that there was a tendency for educational advisors to steer pupils towards easy qualifications, this was for several reasons.
By that time the process had started of turning the long-established and highly respected Technical Colleges into the much more Hi-Tech sounding Colleges of Technology. This had begun under Thatcher and accelerated under the several Blair administrations, with the emphasis on computer technology, the creative industries and of course the dreaded “media studies”.
Premises that would have housed a dozen or more brickwork or carpentry apprentices could now be filled with desks and computers; courses in trades that needed three and four years of study were replaced by ones that were reduced to six months with students ticking boxes to multiple choice answers and a project for an examination. The diplomas were handed out at the graduation ceremony and the next intake duly inducted.
The new colleges were run by private enterprises that were profit orientated, so turnover was of prime importance, but, even more importantly, an anti-technical ethos emerged across the political spectrum that stressed the emerging computer and financial industries. Students leaving school were encouraged to take courses in those fields, even though they are the ones that were most subject to market volatility and technological development. The era was one of the new computers that were going to change the world and financial derivatives that no one could really understand, even the people who sold them.
In the field of higher education, the situation became as bad but over a longer period of time. The rot began when Margaret Thatcher promised that everyone had the ability to go to university and she would create the universities; she did so by re-naming the countrywide system of polytechnics and offering easier courses. All of a sudden the bumbling Poly social studies lecturer, immortalised by Posy Simmonds as George Webber in The Guardian, was a University Lecturer no less, still teaching the same subjects to students who still left the same building, this time after three years, unable to find a job.
At the same time that this process was in progress, and it took several decades to arrive at the situation we now find ourselves in, other events were taking place that was to have an effect on our society. The skilled individuals that built and maintained the very structures of that society, the houses, office blocks and shopping malls and the whole of the rest of the built environment were ageing and retiring. In eastern Europe, events were beginning to unfold that that would, in the short term, solve the problem and a crisis was averted. In 1989 the Berlin wall was breached and communism began its collapse. With the destruction of the Iron Curtain that extended, in Churchill’s words, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” the possibility of a better life in the West opened to hundreds of thousands of people who now found the freedom to travel. Even before the official accession of those countries to the EU, skilled people packed their bags and their tools and headed for the UK, which was even then experiencing a skills shortage. The building trades were particularly well represented in the Eastern Block countries, with their emphasis on heavy industries and an intensive training programme directed by the state. Enterprising agents arranged visas to the UK, the only country in Northern Europe that hadn’t had a comprehensive apprentice training programme and which was now paying the price. Gradually this country became dependent on the former communist states to the extent that a culture of not needing to train bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers became all pervasive. School students were directed away from the vocational trades towards the kind of courses I have described above which, in the case of computing orientated ones, either became obsolete very quickly or could be outsourced to third world countries.
Having stated the problem, what is the answer? Well, it’s staring us in the face: train the people we need in the skills that are needed! Simple you might think, but not so in reality. For a start we have lost the old system of technical colleges, many of which have been sold off as valuable assets, sitting as they were on inner city sites. With them have gone the technical skills of the tradespeople who went into teaching and the network of connections between the training establishments and the employers that were vital to the whole integrated process that had been built up over more than a century. On top of those problems is the cultural one that I have already mentioned, where an ambience of reliance on computer technology and the creative and financial industries has led into the dead end of dependency on imported skills.
We need as a matter of urgency a national programme of training to begin as soon as possible with a new Ministry of Skills to oversee the whole process. The already existing Construction Industry Training Board can be the basis for much of the network.
A new and more extensive tax across the industry would go directly to the new Ministry and not to the Exchequer. This will prevent the money raised from being diverted to cover deficits in other parts of the national budget.
A campaign of education beginning in the schools would raise the profile of vocational skills to that of others, particularly those in computing, with a stress on the permanence of the skill as well as its transportability. A structural steel worker can take that skill anywhere in the world, the web designer faces a continual de-skilling as well as competition from anyone anywhere who can speak English.
The problem is massive but that is no reason not to begin and what I have outlined above should be a core part of the Labour manifesto. Let’s make a start.