Can't write, can't count May04


About 20% of our adult population cannot write or count. About 33,000 children leave school every year at age 16 without a single GCSE. Over 33% of the working population neither have a university degree nor a Level 2 qualification (5 or more GCSEs at A-C grade or a NVQ Level 2). Whilst 82% of German and 71% French workers have the equivalent of Level 2 qualification, the UK can only claim a mere 53%. Only 38% of UK workers have a Level 3 qualification (2 or more GCE A Levels or NVQ Level 3) compared to 73% in Germany.


On winning the General Election in 1999, Tony Blair declared his priority for Britain: “education, education, education”. He has failed to upgrade the standards of our primary and secondary schools, undermined the Conservative-initiated programme of a comprehensive, well-funded Master Apprenticeship scheme and failed to promote a pool of skilled workers who can serve our industry and businesses. Mr. Blair’s belief that 50% of our school leavers must go to universities, irrespective of what they study, undermines the importance of a parallel technical educational programme that can offer the skills needed to strengthen our economy.


A Report by the Institute of Directors (IoD) titled “Education and Training: Blueprint for Reform” outlines a new architecture for UK universities such that there would be classified into three categories:-

a)     Research and Training e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College (London)

b)     Academic Teaching 

c)      Vocational Training


A survey of 500 IoD members conducted by NOP revealed that 37% of businesses experienced skill shortages in recruiting in the last six months. Occupations that were particularly hard to fill included associate professional or technical positions, sales, marketing and middle management. Over 25% of these IoD members also referred to skill shortages in IT, software and engineering. Many firms suffer skill gaps where the workforce is unable to meet the objectives of the business.


What must we do to tackle this problem?


  1. Improve the standards in schools to ensure that pupils leave with a mastery of the Three R’s, knowledge of at least one European language, basic IT skills and at least level 2 qualification.

  2. Offer pupils at age 13 to be ‘linked’ to a local business/industry to ‘observe and assist’ on Saturday mornings or an afternoon reserved for such a purpose. They could compile information based on their experience and it could count as coursework for their GCSE Enterprise.

  3. Offer school leavers, with English and Mathematics at GCSE level, the opportunity to study for a vocational qualification that is twinned to practical working days with a related business.

  4. Offer appropriate financial incentive for vocational training at a technical college  and encourage industry/business to recognise and pay equivalent salaries for such graduates. UK businesses already pay £23bn for training of employees.


UK businesses need computer programmers, plumbers, electricians, heating engineers, air-conditioning engineers, carpenters, metal workers, graphic designers, vehicle mechanics, marine engineers and masons who are competent and resident up and down the country, not just in the big cities. The Construction Industry Training Board estimates that some 380,000 people will be needed for recruitment by December 2006 to meet current growth targets and replace those leaving the sector. This does not take account of Mr. Prescott’s plan to build a million homes in the South East, including the corridor between Cambridge and the M25.   


Skill shortages and skill gaps on this scale inhibit productivity growth, discourage innovation and decimate profitability. We should not discourage our young people from acquiring technical skills and then depend on immigrant labour to fill the gap. This results in rising unemployment for our citizens, social dependency and communal tension. Whilst the UK does need immigrant skills, there is a social cost for housing, schools and health for a large inflow of immigrants every year that has to be financed from taxation, including taxes on business. UK businesses cannot afford to lose their competitive edge in the EU and on the global market.