Training to Compete

Sheila Lawlor writes: –

This week’s productivity growth figures bring another reminder of the UK’s legacy of industrial decline. After its once successful industries ceased production – iron and steel, ship building, coal mining, textiles, potteries – the consequences of decline were bound to be serious.  Although successive governments sought to alleviate the impact through economic, social welfare and labour market policy, it is now clear that to change course, the reform of education and vocational training must be a priority. The aim must be a highly skilled labour force, equipped to meet changing global demands, just as adapting to changes in domestic demand was hitherto a secret of survival.

That happened at Crewe Railway Works, the historic base for locomotive production and repairs in the UK. Over the course of a century or more from the 1840s to1958 and through changing ownerships, it produced 7,000 steam locomotives. When building new trains ceased after 1991 Crewe continued as a vehicle and component repair centre until acquired in our own century by the Canadian firm, Bombardier, in 2001. Today it is a centre for component re-engineering and overhaul for bogies (undercarriages), wheels and traction.

Crewe also produced pre-war and wartime Rolls Royce aircraft engines (in 1943 alone it produced 25,000 Merlin engines), becoming a site for Rolls Royce motor car production when aero engine operations were moved to Derby. Today it manufactures Bentley cars under the parent ownership of Volkswagen.

The ability to adapt skills will continue to play an important role but for today’s global market the labour force must be equipped to compete globally in what are knowledge based, high skill industries. The example of locomotive production is a telling one, as other countries and especially four main players, Germany’s Siemens, France’s Alstron, Japan’s Hitachi Rail Europe and Bombardier now produce UK locomotives.

France and Germany, the most similar economies, boast rigorous vocational education and training systems that can catapult the country and its labour force through the changes and demands of the global production market. The French system promotes the most academically able talent in engineering and other spheres, and historically combined this with a focus on technology, maths, physics and engineering. At 16 the technical schools build on the subject knowledge, combining it with specialist vocational teaching for the chosen field. The same happens in Germany’s celebrated dual system from 15 or 16, where vocational and technological training is combined with high standards of continuing general education, along with business and industry led apprenticeships.

By contrast, this country, though poised to follow the same path as its neighbours after the Second World War, missed many opportunities. The tripartite system was dismantled after the 1960s with bad consequences for technical and vocational training as well for general education. Later attempts from the 1980s-2000s to plug the gaps with new ‘specialist’ and ‘technology’ schools and an array of vocational courses, allowed some specialization in mainstream schooling. But the mix of funding and qualifications policies and priorities for the post-16 FE sector has left education and vocational training at the mercy of stop-gap solutions and the labour force ill-equipped when its local industry closes its doors.

Reversing the decades of education decline and vocational training failure has now become a political and economic priority. The reform of vocational and technological education and training and the introduction of new T levels to run parallel with A levels is to be welcomed. But vocational success in both France and Germany is built on the whole system. If the UK’s labour market is to be equipped for Britain to take a lead in the high skilled industries of the future, it should combine ambitious academic curricula with technological and vocational options.


Andrew Lewer MP responds: –

The first speech I attended on vocational education was in Leeds some years ago: it reflected upon guilds and apprenticeships in the past: how they celebrated success in this field was, how elaborate and colourful were the scrolls and certificates gained – in England but even more so in Germany. This is more than a superficial point. It is related to the esteem and sense of achievement to which vocational education must aspire if it is to compete with the strong pull of university, the framed cap and gown photograph adorning family mantelpieces all over the country.

Raising esteem must go hand in hand with adjustment to educational provisions. As a former Member of the European Parliament and having worked in the Culture and Education committee, I have learned that we have a lot to learn from our European friends.

The recent Industrial Strategy White Paper points out that the UK has been confronted with a productivity problem ever since the financial crisis, and perhaps from earlier. It is not the ever-booming tech sector that suffers from low productivity; in fact, the tech sector has had an unexpectedly good year amid Brexit concerns. It is what the paper calls the “long tail” of firms in adjacent sectors that do not perform well. Improving vocational education is the key to tackling this problem.

Already, there are successes in UK vocational education. The University of Derby, of which I am a governor, partners with local organisations, such as Rolls-Royce, to get industry’s input into their teaching curricula.  This real-world learning philosophy has already started to bring results: 74.1% of their students are in graduate-level employment within six months of finishing their course. They also have 200 apprentices on schemes in fields such as Cyber Security, Civil and Mechanical Engineering and Nursing This approach has helped place the University of Derby in the top 20% universities in the UK. It is one that should be more widely adopted.


Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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