Training "German style" – this is how the British are seeking to fill a gap in the system

Productivity growth in Great Britain has remained below expectations for many years – this is also due to a lack of vocational skills.

The aim is for T Levels and apprenticeships to change this. For the experts however, this does not go far enough.

Leonard Koltun is excited. Croydon College in South London and the offer of a school-leaving certificate specialising in electrical engineering are both precisely what the 16-year-old had imagined for himself. Following the tour, he needs no persuading. "My favourite subject is actually art. But I don't see how I can use that in my career," explains the student who is currently preparing for his GCSEs – qualifications comparable with the intermediate school-leaving certificate in Germany. He enjoys practical work, is very interested in electrical engineering and is not keen on a further two years of purely academic education. "This specialism will also definitely give me much better job prospects."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government are banking on the fact that, in future, significantly more young people will think as this young man does and value training with a much greater practical focus. These so-called T Levels – a type of two-year upper secondary level – have been in existence since last year. The subjects available are more practically focussed than A Levels, which typically involve three or four school subjects and prepare students for study at university.

The focus is not purely technical and ranges from agriculture and digital business via healthcare science and accounting through to construction and personnel management. New specialisms will gradually be introduced over the coming years. Classroom teaching delivers the theoretical and practical skills for the occupational profile. Days spent in college-based learning are supplemented by at least 45 days of professional practical experience in a company.

For some time, increasing options for vocational training have also been available to British school leavers – these are the apprenticeships. They are more similar to German vocational education and training, however they differ significantly depending on the specialism. Some allow a qualification after twelve months, others take more than three years. All of them feature a large practical component.

The model for vocational education and training is clear. Gavin Williamson – Education Secretary until the middle of September – had referred on multiple occasions to a "world-class system, German style". The plan is for this to help reduce the country's huge regional disparities in standards of living. In a January white paper, the government emphasised that its purpose is to open up new prospects for students and to supply the economy with desperately needed skilled workers.

This is certainly not the first time that the British have looked towards Germany and the dual training system. In 1896, a delegation of business representatives, having arrived from Manchester to see what was happening here in Germany, deduced that Germany’s technical education was a key element at the root of the country’s economic success.

They concluded it was high time their own young people were provided with a similar educational offer. Around 20 years later, the well-known economist Alfred Marshall again warned that the British were lacking precisely the kind of technical education which Germany was using to help fill the middle ranks in its companies.

For a time, such appeals brought results. At the start of the 1960s, around one third of young people leaving school entered training. But then companies increasingly backtracked and were no longer offering any positions. Since then, vocational education and training has been very much overshadowed culturally by universities.

Cuts have been made over many years to the rather limited forms of apprenticeship and to technical training pathways with a practical focus. According to the 2019 Augur Report, a comprehensive review of post-18 education, the highest level of qualification is a vocational qualification for just four percent of 25-year-olds. Over recent years, this percentage has continued to fall. This compares to a value in Germany of 20 percent.

Many of the approaches in the revised training offers are very positive, explains Sandra McNally, Professor of Economics at the University of Surrey and Director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research, a think tank which looks at vocational education and training. "One of the weaknesses of our system is the lack of vocational skills at the intermediate level. In this respect, T Levels represent a very good offer."

She addresses the economic problems associated with this shortage. For many years, productivity growth in the country has remained below expectations. New training concepts and the development of skills may help to address the problem.

Brexit also has a role to play. "The reliance on workers from abroad has now reached its limits." Climate change should also not be underestimated in terms of its potential impact. Many of the jobs likely to emerge in green sectors have a technical focus.

For some time, a whole range of companies have been taking steps themselves to remedy this problem. The security and aerospace company BAE Systems has been providing training for many years. Richard Hamer, Education Director, explains that around 2,000 young people are currently in training.

These include welders and installers, but also engineers specialising, for example, in nuclear and aerospace technology. While, BAE Systems cooperates with universities to support this, "their offers are frequently too broad for our requirements."

He explained that 10 years ago the company had around a dozen training programmes on offer. "There are now more than 50." This success shows BAE Systems are getting it right. 95 percent of trainees complete their training and stay with the company.

"Nine out of ten are also still with us ten years after completing their training." This is helped not least by the appreciation within the company. Many managers started their careers at BAE Systems as trainees. However, Hamer is in no doubt: "The number of trainees is nowhere near enough to meet the demands of industry."

The hope for growth in productivity and for regional levelling up, and the high demand from companies over many years are by no means the only triggers behind the planned realignment of the education system. Costs also have a critical role to play in this.

In Great Britain, students pay up to £9,250 (€10,952) in tuition fees each year. Only in Scotland is academic training free for the country's young people. Loans are available to students to fund this. The repayment begins once they have entered the job market and are earning more than £27,295. On average, university graduates build up a debt of £45,000.

College-based technical training leading to a qualification costs £4,850 a year, takes less time, and is therefore much cheaper. It’s also cheaper for the government. On average, for every pound handed out as a student loan only 46 pence is repaid. One of the reasons for this is that graduates do not exceed the earnings threshold.

A while ago, former Education Secretary Williamson was critical of the current situation at a universities conference, saying there were 25 higher education institutions in the country where fewer than half the students who begin a degree will one day go on to employment appropriate to the level of their academic degree. This was simply unacceptable, he added. His successor Nadhim Zahawi is also committed to making VET funding a priority in order to close the gaps in the system.

Cohorts in years with high birth rates are creating a further funding problem. For example, by 2025 there would be almost an additional 40,000 students per year if the same proportion of school leavers opt for university. Existing educational institutions would have to be significantly expanded and new ones may need to be added.

For many pupils, university remains the first choice if their grades allow this. "Snobbery, or looking down on technical jobs, remains a problem," explains McNally referring to one of the limitations for the training plans. "But the perception has improved."

Hamer confirms the significant levels of interest in the BAE Systems training programme. Every year around 800 positions are advertised and more than 10,000 applications are received. If nothing else, the high costs of academic education would cause lots of families to consider the value of this option. "And it's becoming clear that training provides useful skills and a good salary."

The company is also seeing significant interest being shown in its approach from other businesses, for example in the automotive industry, the engine building industry and aerospace, as well as other sectors with a high demand for engineers. Hamer explains that BAE Systems is now developing some training profiles in cooperation with others. 

Despite the growing interest among young people and in the government, the transition to more vocational education and training is not guaranteed. McNally explains that today there are still no clear occupational profiles or corresponding training pathways.

Many offers are very specific and virtually tailored to one company. She says there are thousands of different training courses and that it is therefore difficult to assess the benefits of these and their potential application. By way of comparison, in 2020 in Germany, there were a total of 324 recognised training occupations.

"Much is also dependent on funding," explains McNally. Continuing education providers, which are also responsible for adult education, offer many courses. However, data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies think tank shows that since 2010 state funding for this sector has been cut by one third.

With funding of 3.5 billion per year, the budget is currently just about equivalent to the running costs of the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge universities. Then there’s the fact that teachers in vocational training centres are paid 25 percent less than teachers at general education schools.

In the end, the right qualifications need to be taught for the jobs needed over the coming years and decades, and they must have the necessary flexibility to also satisfy the new demand.

The exclusive focus on a system of vocational education and training falls short in this respect. "They ultimately need a broader context, an overall economic strategy," explains McNally. "Training systems and skills must be tailored to this."

Source: (German newspaper DIE WELT), revised by iMOVE, April 2022