It’s time to change the record: a ‘German-style skills system’ isn’t the answer

It’s time to change the record: a ‘German-style skills system’ isn’t the answer

17th July 2020

“I plan to build a world-class, Everton-style team,” said no football manager, ever. True to form for a club with a reputation for consistently achieving mid-table mediocrity, the Toffees currently sit in 11th place out of the 20 teams in the Premier League table.

Eleventh is also position in which Germany finished in WorldSkills Kazan 2019, just one place ahead of Team UK (not bad, considering the paucity of support from the Westminster government compared to that lavished on teams from China, Russia and South Korea). Yet despite Germany also being comprehensively outperformed by the skills superpowers (not to mention neighbours Switzerland and Austria) in last year’s competition, it remains the international rival which our ministers seemingly cannot stop obsessing over. In a significant speech last week outlining his vision for further education, secretary of state for education Gavin Williamson revealed that the forthcoming White Paper “will set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities”.

It’s important to remember that WorldSkills competitions do not provide us with a straightforward league table of the most effective national skills systems. They reflect, rather, how good countries are at identifying and preparing their elite professionals for international competition. But as far as comparing countries’ skills prowess goes, they are as good a proxy as we have. And the results from recent WorldSkills competitions show the Germans lagging behind the likes of Chinese Taipei, Japan and France.

So why the obsession with Germany? It can be traced as far back as the Great Exhibition of 1851, which Keep describes as the start of the UK’s handwringing about the “superior performance of overseas vocational education and training (VET) systems”. In 1882 the Royal Commission on Technical Education diagnosed poor technical skills development as a cause of the UK’s eroding competitiveness, and cast admiring glances at the German system. This sense of admiration was only heightened by Germany’s post-war economic miracle, with the famed dual system at its heart. And the country has not been shy of capitalising on its reputation for excellence, with the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) federal development agency blazing a trail in exporting the German approach to willing buyers across the globe. And let’s not forget the domestic political context: the UK vowing to take on the big beasts of Berlin at their own game makes for a compelling narrative for Brexiteers.

But international skills competitions offer a ready-made source of intelligence on cutting edge technical practice across the world – and all the evidence suggests that the epicentre of elite VET is in Asia, not Europe. Germany without doubt has many strengths, but it is rooted in a very different economic and social context and has been embedded over decades. Apprenticeships, certainly, are much more prestigious in Germany than the UK – not least as they are delivered as partnership between government, vocational teachers, employers and trade unions, which explains the inherent stability in the system.

Yet this culture has developed over decades, as Belgutay points out, not through White Papers and policy changes. Which brings us neatly back to Williamson’s speech. If you thought it sounded strangely familiar, you’d be right. The themes of snobbishness around FE, the skills and productivity gap, misguided expansion of higher education, the need to cut low-value courses; all have been trotted by a succession of ministers and even prime ministers in recent times. Former education secretary Damian Hinds at Battersea Power Station in December 2018. Former prime minister Theresa May at the publication of the Augar review in May 2019. Williamson even had a previous attempt himself at the Conservative Party Conference in September 2019; on that occasion he even stated an ambition to beat the Germans, rather than just emulating their system (although precisely what metrics would be used to judge whether the UK has managed to “overtake Germany in the opportunities we offer to those studying technical routes by 2029” was more than a little unclear).

Williamson’s latest speech at the Social Market Foundation left me with mixed feelings. After writing about FE being ignored by politicians for years, it is exciting to hear a senior Cabinet minister eulogising about its importance to the country. Yet the same old clichés about FE not getting the recognition it deserves have become stale and hollow. Trotting out the obvious observation that technical education is not seen to be as prestigious as higher education actually serves to underline, not undermine, the snobbery it purports to rubbish. The implication is that while FE can be prestigious and vital in the future, it is not at the moment.

As a political scene setter to the White Paper, Williamson’s speech was perfectly adequate. But let’s not beat about the bush: a VET system is rooted in its own economy and culture, and cannot be exported lock, stock and barrel. The German system would not work here. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be closely researching and analysing what other countries does well, and adapting their ideas for our own context. But rather than obsessing about the ostensible success of others, we need to start writing the first chapter of our own success story.

We need a new narrative. A positive story about our journey of improvement, informed and inspired by best practice across the globe, but rooted in our culture. What better inspiration could there be than the London 2012 Olympics? Prior to lockdown, discussions had started taking place about the feasibility of the UK bidding to host WorldSkills 2027. Given the recession and economic upheaval our country now faces in the weeks and months ahead, this has understandably dropped down the list of pressing priorities for the government. But the prospect of a competition on home soil, and the opportunity for Brexit Britain to display the fruits of its work to revitalise skills in front of the whole world, is a tantalising one. Russia made hosting WorldSkills 2019 in Kazan the focal point of the ambitious and radical overhaul of its skills system, entirely built around WorldSkills international benchmarks and resulting in it being catapulted from obscurity to second place in the medal table.

The Russian political, social and economic context is, of course, very different to the UK. But its WorldSkills journey shows the importance of good storytelling in raising standards in technical education. And, if nothing else, we need the change the story. And, for goodness’ sake, let’s keep the Germans out of it.

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former further education editor at Tes.