UK education system: not fit for business

Posted on 22 Feb 2017 by Jonny Williamson

The manufacturing sector is experiencing a dangerous skills shortage that appears to be getting worse with every passing year. There is a great deal of blame to go around, but a significant portion of it rests with the education system. Changing that requires a change in national attitudes to manufacturing, as Nick Peters reports.

At the core of this seemingly intractable issue is a question. What kind of society do we want to live in? What sort of society do we want to bequeath to future generations? And, realistically, do we have a choice in the matter?

The answer to the latter question is not much, and as far as manufacturing is concerned, that is deeply worrying. A sector that requires somewhere in the region of one million more engineers and technicians than we are currently capable of producing over the next 10 years is facing a twin squeeze, from an education system that is geared towards providing a degree-for-all in the name of social equality and mobility, and a post-Brexit immigration policy that threatens to restrict access to the skilled immigrants that companies are crying out for.

The Manufacturer asked the Department for Education for an interview with a responsible minister or to provide us with ministerial comment on education policy, but none was forthcoming.

Immigration policy is responsive to short-term adjustments, which makes it less of an immediate issue (even though the government’s combative language on immigration is causing serious concern, as Lord Bilimoria, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group’s Manufacturing Commission told us in our December edition.)

Education, on the other hand, takes a generation to change course, as is evident from the fact that decisions taken decades ago are still working their way through the system. Principal among these is the belief that social mobility is enhanced when children from poor backgrounds are given the same opportunity to gain high-paying jobs, mainly in the professions, as their better-off contemporaries, and that means getting a university degree.

The trough

The flowering of this belief that degrees were all that mattered coincided with the economic gear change the country underwent because of Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms, which led to the post-Big Bang boom in financial services and the rise of the service economy, mirrored by manufacturing’s relative decline.

The so-called ‘trough’ reveals a disastrous cliff-edge drop in the numbers of qualified personnel, from engineers to technicians, a reflection of the decline of technical education and apprenticeships and the rise of the drive to academia.
The so-called ‘trough’ reveals a disastrous cliff-edge drop in the numbers of qualified personnel, a reflection of the decline of technical education and apprenticeships.

Manufacturing apprenticeships followed this downward trajectory, to the point that in the early 1990s only the top players in aerospace, chemicals, nuclear, automotive, power and energy systems were offering young people between 16-18 career-creating opportunities.

Fast forward to 2017 and we can see the skills crisis that is engulfing manufacturing, a direct result of the sea-change in policy over 30 years ago. Some manufacturers talk of the ‘trough’ that is moving through their companies. At the leading edge of the trough are Baby Boomers who benefitted from apprenticeships and a generally broad-based spectrum of career opportunities.

Behind them comes a disastrous cliff-edge drop in the numbers of qualified personnel, from engineers to technicians, a reflection of the decline of technical education and apprenticeships and the rise of the drive to academia.

At the far end of the trough is a slightly more optimistic picture as younger skilled people who became part of the revived apprenticeship programmes of the early 2000s are now part of the workforce. But there are nothing like enough of them – we need more, and we are not producing them.


At the most basic, practical level, it should take about five years to develop a whole new cohort of young engineers and technicians. Depending on the skills they are being trained for, it could be less, it could be more. But why don’t we just channel the candidates we need into technical and vocational training now and let this problem resolve itself?

Your view matters!

This article attempts to present a broad overview of a very complex and deep-seated issue. We have reflected some views and solutions and would like to continue to do so in future issues.

Therefore, we would like to hear your thoughts on what should be done to make a better case for careers in manufacturing – and to hear what you are already doing to make a difference.

Please write to: [email protected] and we will publish your view on our website and print a selection of them in the magazine. The more the merrier, so please get in touch.

If only it were that simple. Two interconnecting forces are at work to prevent it happening, and they have to be dealt with in order for the tide to turn. First, there is the degree-for-all obsession that I have already mentioned. This is how it works in practice. Imagine, if you will, a head teacher at a secondary school under pressure to balance the books from his or her academy trust.

During GCSE year, one would hope the school would channel children into technical, vocational or academic streams according to their talent and aptitude, but it doesn’t work like that. Government funding is structured to keep children in sixth form, so, for the sake of extra revenue, the budget-conscious school dragoons children into sixth form, whether it is the right thing for them or not. One head teacher openly admitted to me they felt conflicted, knowing they were not doing the right thing.

Surely children can still learn STEM subjects in sixth form? Yes, they can, but demand for such subjects is low because of the second force at work, which is parental influence.

Today’s parents of 16-year-old children grew up in the time of industrial decline and the growth of office-based professions. The image of manufacturing they carry is of dark satanic mills rusting in the hollowed-out communities of industrial Britain: oily rags, smokestacks, a second-class citizenry who wield spanners for a living instead of becoming superstar accountants.

This severely misguided perception is shared by media, politicians and not surprisingly by classroom teachers who consequently have no incentive to champion careers in manufacturing. This is doubly important, given that the coalition government scrapped the Careers Advisory Service, making careers advice the job of schools.

Raw material

The EEF Technology Hub at Aston trains more than 250 apprentices a year
The EEF Technology Hub at Aston trains more than 250 apprentices a year.

Some employers have stepped into the resulting vacuum and are working with universities, colleges and institutions to provide the training that government will not. As noted, large companies like Rolls-Royce plc, BAE Systems and others have been providing apprenticeships for many years, so it is the smaller companies further down the supply chain that are being starved of talent.

Neil Withey is director of the EEF Technology Hub at Aston, which works with about 90 Midlands companies to train 250+ apprentices a year. He says it is not always a question of insufficient demand for apprenticeship programmes. Even if 16 year olds do apply in numbers, they don’t all have what it takes.

“We had 8,000 applications for 350 posts last year,” he said, “but only managed to fill 320 because we were not able to attract the right talent in terms of their academic skills, so what we are seeing is a higher age band, more coming from A-levels into apprenticeships than have ever done before, because they have the skills we and industry need.”

The upshot is that the system is failing those young people at 16 who may want vocational training, but are frankly insufficiently qualified to receive it. The government-licensed manufacturing sector skills council, SEMTA, is pushing for a change to the fundamental paradox at the heart of policy that says the government wants to encourage more skills training and apprenticeships, but oversees an education policy that pulls in a completely opposite direction.

“Schools should be incentivised to do what is best for the pupil and the nation as a whole,” Ann Watson, SEMTA’s CEO said. “The government should think again about plans to mothball planned reforms to the careers advice system – successive reports have shown the current system is not working and it needs to be reformed so that technical routes are given the weight they deserve. The Industry Apprentice Council’s annual reports have consistently shown this to be a key concern of apprentices. The government must listen.”

Ann Watson, chief executive, Semta.
Ann Watson, chief executive, Semta.


The fact that SEMTA is government-licensed supports the government’s contention that it takes the issue of skills very seriously. Indeed, the Apprenticeship Grant scheme, which pays smaller companies that take on apprentices, and the Apprentice Levy, which comes into force later this year, are just two further examples.

It is because of the lack of a central guiding philosophy and joined-up thinking that causes so much to fall through the cracks. “The days that we can sit back and wait for government to do all the work are over,” Ann Watson of SEMTA contends, implying that employers should stop moaning about the problem and more of them should do more to help themselves.

“They need to commit further resources to secure the skills that will help them prosper through the 21st Century. They need to adopt an open door policy to show pupils and educators the rewarding careers and lifestyles on offer to them. At last count there were over 800 STEM initiatives, all focused on attracting more young people into the sector. As a sector, if we choose to collaborate more, facilitated by organisations like SEMTA, RAEng and EngineeringUK, for instance, then employers could achieve a more powerful impact than working independently.”

While acknowledging that greater collaboration at employer level would make a difference, Richard Grice, MD of ILX Skills, part of the global ILX training company, believes it still needs a radical overhaul at the heart of government policymaking if the UK is to get even close to emulating the German ‘Mittelstand’, the gold standard when it comes to industrial policy, education and public attitudes all working in the same direction.

The UK education system is currently failing those young people at 16 who may want vocational training, but are frankly insufficiently qualified to receive it.
The UK education system is currently failing those young people at 16 who may want vocational training, but are frankly insufficiently qualified to receive it.

“There has to be a parity of esteem between vocational training and higher education,” he said. “There are plenty of great initiatives by employers and bodies like the Local Economic Partnerships, but it is coming from the bottom up and it is disjointed. Who is delivering a coherent strategy, with longevity and accountability, corralling all the money, initiatives and industry activity? In Germany they take it for granted. Here, we are trying to reinvent the wheel years after of dismantling a system that actually worked.”

The £100k question

Even if government policy does start to coalesce around a single vision for industry and education, it will still take years to change societal attitudes. That will require a national information campaign by manufacturers to shout from the rooftops about the excellent careers and pay on offer in the modern high-tech factories of today.

Neil Withey at the EEF Technology Hub has his own very direct way of getting the message across to parents and young people trying to decide between apprenticeships or sixth form.

“I tell them it’s a £100,000 question,” he said, “because if you go to university with its fees and other costs, you’re likely to end up with a debt in the region of £45,000-£50,000 after three years, whereas if you take an apprenticeship it’s likely over the three or four-year period of your apprenticeship that you’ll not only receive the quality of training that you do, but also you’ll receive wages, so you’ll end up at least £45,000-£50,000 better off.

“Right there, that is the £100,000 question. More interestingly, we are seeing HNC students being sponsored to go on to do degrees, so we’re taking them on at 16 as apprentices, and they then go on to do higher education through their workplace. What a fabulous opportunity and one I wish I’d had when I was their age!”