IN 1896 A delegation of businessmen travelled from Manchester to Germany to learn the secrets of its industrial success. The answer, they reckoned, lay in Germany’s superior system of technical education. “It is high time”, they argued, “the effort was made in this country to give our youth the educational advantages enjoyed by their rivals abroad.”
The Mancunians would be unimpressed by the direction of travel in recent years. Universities have expanded hugely; vocational education has not. The Augur review of post-18 education, which reported in 2019, found that there were 50 times as many undergraduates as there were young people studying for higher national diplomas and higher national certificates, the key vocational qualifications. Only 24% of British 16- to 18-year-olds did apprenticeships in 2017, according to the OECD, compared with 59% in Switzerland and 41% in Germany.
Not surprisingly, Britain is shorter of skills than other rich countries. It does badly in 22 of the 31 categories tracked by the OECD (see chart). While Britain is well supplied with sales, marketing, economics and accountancy skills, it is sorely lacking in people who know their onions in construction, engineering, mechanics and technology.