Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Great Education Disaster: Katharine Hibbert, Fresh from University, Was Astonished by the Squalid Conditions and Poor Teaching at a College Where She Went to Learn a Vocational Skill

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Great Education Disaster: Katharine Hibbert, Fresh from University, Was Astonished by the Squalid Conditions and Poor Teaching at a College Where She Went to Learn a Vocational Skill

Article excerpt

The evening classes I go to may he cheap, but they are not cheerful. One of the neon strip lights in my classroom has been flickering-since term began. The Venetian blinds are falling apart, and the door has to be wedged shut with a brick. When the photocopier isn't working, which is usually, there are no worksheets. Last week, the teacher mocked me when I asked a question, and this week I couldn't face going so I bunked off. I am trying to learn the vocational skills I need for the job I want, and I haven't got much money to spend. So I am stuck with a hopeless teacher in a dreary classroom at a forlorn further education college. But I am lucky. I have already had a good education from my state schools and university. Many of the people who go to the college have not.

The further education sector, a hotchpotch of public, private and charitable institutions, is supposed to mop up around the edges of schools and universities. It is responsible for the amorphous task of teaching adults everything that they do not learn elsewhere. It must teach reading and writing to prisoners, shorthand to would be journalists, computing to middle aged women and carpentry to 16-year-old school-leavers. Unfortunately, the availability, price and quality of private and charitable further education vary, and the public courses are a long-standing joke. There have been endless attempts to rejuvenate the sector from the Education Act 1944 onwards. But little has changed since 1975, when Trevor Griffiths's play Comedians dramatised the boredom and frustration of going to evening classes.

There is an undisputed need for further education in the UK. An estimated seven million people, a fifth of the adult population, are functionally illiterate. That means they lack the reading and writing abilities expected of the average 11-year-old. They can't fill in forms or read school reports. A survey last moth by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that although British universities are excellent, the education given to those with the fewest qualifications is bad and, compared with the rest of Europe, getting worse. Rated according to the qualifications of those leaving secondary school, the UK is 22nd in a league table of 30 developed countries. That is down from 13th place a generation ago. There was already more a skills chasm than a skills gap, and it is getting wider.

As HSBC and train operators move their call-centres to India and Gillette threatens to shift production of its razors from Middlesex to eastern Europe, the number of low-skilled jobs available is shrinking. Even if they are literate and numerate, adults who cannot use computers, lack training in management techniques or who have no qualifications as technicians or craftsmen are becoming less and less employable. As Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has said, their lack of skills is bad news for themselves and bad news for Britain's economy.

Tony Blair said in 1999 that "the best defence against social exclusion is having a job, and the best way to get a job is to have a good education". A white paper titled "21st-Century Skills: realising our potential", released this summer, showed that one-third of all unemployed people in Britain have literacy and numeracy problems. Among those in prison, 80 per cent have problems with writing, 50 per cent with reading and 65 per cent with numbers.

The white paper also showed that productivity in the UK is 25 per cent lower per hour worked than in Germany and the US, and 30 per cent lower than in France. It acknowledged that this is largely because of the inadequate skills of the workforce. The Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, said: "The future of the country's prosperity lies in the knowledge economy ... We must strive to innovate, to produce high-quality, value-added products and services. And to do this, we have to ensure the right skills to support growth across all regions. …

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