SO it takes a Frenchman to point out the obvious. “The UK has no industry any more,” says President Sarkozy.
Of course, he is still smarting over David Cameron’s single-minded stance at the EU summit in December. And he’s not very happy that France had its credit rating downgraded, even though the UK economy is technically weaker and its deficit higher. So you can see why he is sulking. And although he makes an important point, his statement is typically grandiose; we do have industry left, we do still make things, we do still export.
But industry means more than making things – it also means the will to work. And it is clear to anyone with even the most tenuous grip on economics that we must find a way to develop core skills and create jobs and promote growth.
How to do it? Not with government grants, according to a new study by the London School of Economics, which has found that public money handed out in the past to promote business development largely evaporated with not much growth – or many new jobs – to show for it.
Not that this kind of largesse is around much now. Austerity measures have seen to that, although it will be interesting to see how the outputs of the new Regional Growth Fund are measured. And although the Government can support job creation in any economy, it is not really its role to “create” jobs, irrespective of what Ed Miliband might think.
Indeed, it could be argued that if so much money hadn’t been poured into propping up the public sector in the past, we might not be in quite the economic mess we find ourselves in today.
So, if it’s not the Government’s job to create jobs, whose job is it? Well, let’s be as blunt as President Sarkozy. It’s our job. It is down to us to establish and run the companies and to foster the skills necessary to pick up our industry and take it forward. And this is where I worry that a serious lack of coherent thinking at the heart of this coalition Government is going to make meeting this challenge even more difficult than it already is.
Within days of Sarkozy’s jibe, our own Education Secretary announces a root-and-branch overhaul of the qualifications system which will see the downgrading of thousands of vocational options in schools. Now I know it is tempting to scoff at young people studying such subjects as horse care or fish husbandry, but frankly, I find this attitude patronising and metropolitan in the extreme.
If you live in the middle of a remote rural area and you don’t want to leave your home and family behind to seek work in a city or town, there is a limited range of careers you can take up.
If working at the local equestrian centre or fish farm are the best job opportunities open to you, a GCSE in Latin is not going to be a great deal of use, whatever traditionalists like Michael Gove might think.
I cannot believe that when UK industry is being attacked from all sides – including from France, of course – that our politicians can stand back and watch as qualifications which fit young people for real jobs are systematically dismantled. I know the idea is to stop schools from inflating their performance in exam tables, but I don’t see why opportunities for less-academic children should be sacrificed so that the Education Secretary can drive home his political point.
Mind you, the politicians don’t have to listen to me. I’m just a parent with two kids who will be looking for qualifications and jobs in the next few years. But surely they should be listening to major companies such as JCB, Sony, Boeing and Siemens, which have joined forces to protest that downgrading the Engineering Diploma to become equivalent to one GCSE, not five, will put students off and lead to a massive skills shortage in the industry.
If I was running JCB, I’d see this move as a serious kick in the teeth. And then we wonder why major engineering contracts end up going to companies based in other countries. There is no confidence from above.
By all means, address any issues of academic equivalence, if that is what is required. Be ambitious – why not introduce a separate scheme for counting strictly non-academic qualifications? But don’t turn vocational courses into second-best options, especially when industry has never been as desperate for well-trained, work-ready recruits. And especially when we hear that vocational degree courses have never been as popular, and “pure” academic subjects such as history are the ones under threat in our universities.
When students are paying thousands of pounds for higher education, they want the best chance possible of getting a job at the end of it. They know that. We parents know that. Industry leaders know that. Even a 13-year-old debating which GCSEs to take knows that. Why is it that our politicians seem to have forgotten it?