Developments in Education and Vocational Training in Britain: Background Note on Recent Research

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S.J. Prais [*]

The past decade has seen fundamental policy initiatives at a national level intended to improve vocational skills and to raise school-leaving standards -- particularly in mathematics. These initiatives centred on:

(i) the formation of a National Council for Vocational Qualifications with the object of re-designing, and imposing fundamentally greater coherence into, our previous 'jungle' of vocational qualifications, thereby raising their level of recognition both by employers and by potential trainees, and consequently encouraging a greater volume and higher levels of training to accredited standards of qualification;

(ii) the specification of a National Curriculum for schools, stipulating the main subjects to be taught, the standards which teachers need to aim for in respect of the majority of each age-group, and associated nationwide attainment-tests to be taken by all pupils at several stages in their schooling. A detailed teaching scheme, the National Numeracy Strategy, was laid down nationally for teaching primary-school mathematics (based on the Improving Primary Mathematics scheme developed in Barking and Dagenham together with NIESR using a Continental model) together with a similarly detailed scheme for teaching basic literacy.

Both initiatives, being at a national level, represented significant departures from a previous almost laisser faire approach in which the central government's Departments of Education and of Employment (under their changing structures and titles) were content to concern themselves only with very general organisational matters and financing, and their officials could claim (even boast) agnosticism in relation to the (desired and actual) content and standards of schooling and of vocational qualifications. Such details were to be settled locally by schools, by local educational authorities, and by the industries directly concerned. The new moves to central government intervention were motivated by increasing worries as to Britain's industrial competitiveness, by poorer employment prospects -- with the growing technological complexity of industry -- for the less-skilled sections of the workforce, by limited progress in narrowing social disparities, and by the contrasting examples of other countries' success in m odern industrial training, in school-leaving attainments, and higher economic productivity.

In reaching wider understanding and clearer estimates of the gaps between Britain and other leading industrial countries in these respects, the National Institute's comparative studies played a not insignificant part. A series of site-visits to matched samples of plants in Britain and the Continent was undertaken, including five sectors of manufacturing (metal working, wood furniture, clothing manufacture, food manufacture, chemicals), distribution (retailing) and services (hotels). The countries compared, beginning in the 1980s with Germany, subsequently included sample studies in France, the Netherlands, the United States and Switzerland. Nationwide statistics of vocational qualifications had previously indicated that, broadly speaking, 2-5 times as great a proportion of the workforce on the Continent as in Britain had attained vocational qualifications at craft-level, following a three-year apprenticeship; the site-visits were able to identify the consequences for more efficient working, such as: fewer pla nt-breakdowns, fewer product-rejects, lower manning-levels, greater responsibility by those at operator level for the smooth running of the plant, while those at foreman (first-line supervisor) level had more time and energy for introducing improvements in working methods.

Vocational qualifications on the Continent had wider 'currency' than here. That is to say, they were better understood and respected both by employers and trainees: they required practical tests based on apprenticeship experience at the workplace, combined with written tests on more general/theoretical aspects associated with obligatory part-time college attendance. …