Sir Michael Wilshaw's speech to CBI conference

Speech by Ofsted's HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in Cambridge.

Sir Michael Wilshaw

Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today. I suspect I’m not the first Chief Inspector or education minister to address you. I also suspect the message over the years has been fairly similar: ‘We must do more to make school and college leavers literate and numerate and ready for the world of work.’ I imagine your response down the years has been equally familiar: ‘Yes, we must. And when will that happen?’

The reason I’m here is because I believe there has never been a better time to answer that question. We are at a watershed moment in the history of our education system. The economy is improving, jobs are more plentiful, and there is cross-party agreement on the need for more high-quality apprenticeships. Strong and powerful headteachers and principals are running successful federations and chains of schools which have the flexibility to do much more on vocational education than ever before.

We, therefore, have never had a better opportunity to tackle our lamentable record on vocational education. But only if we seize this moment and only if employers play their part.

For the past 50 years – since the publication of the seminal Newsom report Half our future – politicians, employers and educationalists have all recognised that school and college leavers need more work-ready skills and that vocational education needs to be significantly better. Given that consensus, you would have thought that by now we would have put in place some sort of solution.

But you would be wrong. Vocational education is still failing to deliver the needs of both young people and of society. There are currently 146,000 job vacancies that employers cannot fill because applicants don’t have the required skills. The shortage is particularly dire in key sectors of the economy. Let me give you a few examples – 10 per cent vacancies in financial services, 26 per cent in transport and communications, 28 per cent in agriculture and business services and 30 per cent in manufacturing. I could go on.

These vacancies remain unfilled because candidates lack the necessary skills that employers are looking for.

Overall, one in five job vacancies are unfilled because employers cannot find suitably qualified candidates. This at a time when the unemployment rate of 16–24-year-olds, while declining, is still 14 per cent. Or put another way, almost half a million young people are out of work.

Too much of our education system is not producing the qualified school-leavers our economy requires. As a consequence, youth unemployment remains stubbornly high and employers remain frustrated that they can’t find suitably qualified youngsters. We have been stuck on the same policy roundabout year after year without any clear idea of which direction to take. So, why do we keep getting vocational education wrong in this country?

It is easy to put all the blame at the door of schools and colleges but that would be unfair. Most could certainly do a great deal more, a point I’ll elaborate on later.

But I have been in education for over 40 years and remember the miserable standards that predominated in the seventies, eighties and much of the nineties. Greater accountability – including Ofsted – has enormously improved our schools and children are getting a better deal than ever before. Nevertheless, our education system isn’t firing on all cylinders and hasn’t kept pace with employer expectations or with the gains made by our international competitors. But it is improving.

Ofsted has played its part. When I was appointed as Chief Inspector in 2012 many schools were content to be labelled ‘satisfactory’, coasting along in mediocrity year after year after year. We’ve put an end to that by replacing ‘satisfactory’ with the judgement of ‘requires improvement’ and said unequivocally that ‘good’ is the only acceptable standard. Schools that are less than ‘good’ have got limited time to improve and Her Majesty’s Inspectors remain with those schools until they do get to ‘good’.

Of course, I understand your frustration that our education system is not improving fast enough. Many schools and colleges could do better. Many more youngsters should be work ready. But before I move on to what they could and should do, or indeed what you as employers could and should do, let me give you a taste of the kind of attitudes that the nation and its schools struggle against.

Earlier this month, the principal of a Bradford school in a deprived community sent home 150 pupils because they breached the school’s uniform rules. She was attacked by some for being petty. Let me tell you – I don’t believe that she was. What she was doing was reinforcing to her pupils and to their parents that all successful organisations require rules and that if children, especially children who lack structure and discipline at home, are to succeed in school and in work they have to respect them. It was, in essence, a lesson in how to be employable.

I mention this because I want to emphasise that while schools and colleges need to raise their game, they cannot do it on their own. They need support. They need the backing and involvement of parents, their families and their communities. But crucially they need your backing, the backing of employers.

A question of attitude

So what do we need to do to make vocational education a success? Before we get onto policy specifics I think we should acknowledge that the problem to some extent, is a very British one. It’s as much attitudinal as it is educational.

Let’s face it: vocational training in this country does not have the esteem and status that academic education enjoys. We all pay lip-service to how much more needs to be done. We nod approvingly at the well-regarded German and Swiss schemes, and lament the lack of anything as comprehensive and widespread here. But it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that when policy-makers talk of vocational training they mean an education that is somehow second-rate – something for children who belong to other people.

I wonder how many of you, or for that matter how many senior educationalists and politicians, are happy to nudge their children down a vocational path in preference to a university even if their children’s talents lie that way? It’s an ingrained bias that hampers our country’s ability to support meaningful vocational education. And it reinforces the idea that it is somehow second best. It is hard to see how we will ever develop successful vocational education unless and until we consign such notions to history.

It does not have to be that way. Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Austria and others show what can be done. In those countries, apprenticeships are well understood by students, well supported by employers and well regarded by the public.

A 16-year-old youngster in Germany who wishes to be a mechanical engineering apprentice can get a position at a local firm, which sends him or her to a specialist automotive college for two days a week. He or she knows about the scheme because employers, schools and colleges have a tradition of working together. They tell children what’s available, what’s expected and what the likely career path will be. In Britain it’s a different story. Only one in five schools gives their students effective career advice, according to a recent Ofsted survey.

The role of employers

I was struck recently on a visit to Switzerland by how well apprenticeships work and how highly regarded they are. Apprenticeships are viewed as a respected and crucial way to acquire relevant skills. Critically, they are embedded in the country’s education system and employers have a central role in making that system work. Two-thirds of young Swiss who leave compulsory education at 15 embark on a vocational programme which incorporates an apprenticeship. In Germany, it is a similar figure. In this country only 23% of all apprenticeship starts are in the 16 to 18 age group, although there were seven applicants for every apprenticeship. This is a miserable statistic.

The curriculum in these other countries is defined by employers and updated annually to reflect changing labour market requirements. If there is a surfeit of plumbers one year, the number being trained is reduced and applicants encouraged into other sectors. Here, a recent analysis by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that there was no coherent link between apprenticeship growth and skill shortage.

The Swiss system requires a degree of cooperation between education and employers. It requires sector-wide planning and constant communication between colleges and firms. And it requires employers to commit to supporting youngsters while they train. All of which, frankly, isn’t common here.

But the benefits are obvious: employers have access to skilled employees trained in a manner relevant to their businesses, while the country gains a young, skilled workforce. In Switzerland, youth unemployment is a low 8.5 per cent.

Compare that with the situation in this country. I appreciate that a lot of people in this audience are involved in establishing and expanding excellent apprenticeships but many employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses, aren’t. They may want to be involved but they have no idea how to go about recruiting an apprentice, what funding is available, how they go about developing a course with the local college, or what the likely outcomes would be. We don’t make the process simple or accessible.

The Government has recognized the problem and is addressing it by directly giving money to employers to buy training, for instance. I warmly applaud this move.

But it’s still the case that the vocational prospects for the average 16-year-old are poor. Let’s imagine a teenager – let’s call him John – who wants to be a mechanic. He isn’t aware of what is on offer from employers because they aren’t involved with his school. His school has no more idea because it has only tenuous links with local businesses. Local employers aren’t aware of his aptitudes and inclination because they have no input into his education.

John has had only poor career guidance, so he takes the first course that is offered to him even though it is largely classroom based and has little connection to the demands of the real economy. That, in a nutshell, is what passes for vocational education in much of England today.

The role of schools and colleges

I agree with your recent report; too many school leavers enter the workplace lacking basic literacy and numeracy. Career guidance is often out of date, weak and narrow. Too many youngsters leave school unaware that the world of work requires them to be punctual, suitably dressed and to communicate politely and empathetically with colleagues and customers.

We have no right to be surprised at this state of affairs. The low status accorded to vocational programmes has quite simply diluted the brand. Schools lack high-quality facilities and staff who are up-to-date with the latest technical practices.

I have heard examples of a school caretaker delivering a construction course because he had built a greenhouse, and of geography teachers running travel and tourism courses without understanding the industry well enough. In too many institutions, vocational education has become an afterthought, delivered by those who are not sufficiently valued. This has to change.

The recent cross-party consensus on apprenticeships is surely the right one. Schools and colleges could do more to equip youngsters for the skills and attitudes necessary for work. But if we are to get off that policy roundabout, if we are to do something enduring in vocational education, we cannot expect schools and colleges to do all the heavy lifting. We need to be cannier and employers need to play their part.

Transforming vocational education

I applaud the Government’s recent initiatives to improve the quality of vocational education with the introduction of the practical Technical Awards and Levels alongside GCSEs and A levels. But everyone in the system must play their part. I think we need to do four things:

  • apprenticeships must have parity of esteem with A levels - they must be sold aggressively to schools, parents and young people. This means that the quality of careers information and guidance must be raised substantially
  • high-quality vocational education must be readily available to all pupils in the same way academic education is - it should be seen as a valid option for every student and not as the consolation prize for those who cannot do anything else
  • employer engagement must be at the forefront of any reform
  • all vocational training must give a clear line of sight to work

If we are to make this happen, not only do we have to have a fundamental shift in attitudes but also in educational structures. We don’t need to start from scratch but we do need to build on the pioneering work done by some schools and colleges.

We’ve seen the good work already happening in clusters – led by good or outstanding schools and colleges. That trend to federation should be encouraged. I know if I were leading a cluster of schools, I would make sure they had strong links to Local Enterprise Partnerships or Chambers of Commerce. I’d affiliate the schools to specific industries depending on local demand.

And wouldn’t it be good if at least one of the schools in the cluster had particularly strong vocational provision from 14, perhaps in a UTC or a specialist college?

Young people could then transfer across institutions in the cluster to provide a route to high-level academic or vocational study.

Pupils at all the schools in the cluster would have access to high-quality vocational training from 14, including those who are typically deemed ‘academic high achievers’. Students on either path would be free to access the specialist teaching available in the other and would not be stuck in one route. Let me stress this isn’t about selection at 14 – it’s about maximum opportunity at 14.

Delivering a vocational education

The involvement of employer-led bodies is equally crucial. It would ensure that the vocational curriculum matched the changing requirements of the labour market. As you at the CBI have pointed out in your recent report, over the next three to four years, 30 per cent of firms predict growing demand for people with skills at level 3 and nearly 60 per cent for people with skills at level 4. Vocational training should never be the easy route.

As things stand, employer engagement in the provision of vocational training is far too haphazard. Too much is reliant on the goodwill of individual companies. Just 13 per cent of employers in the UK offer apprenticeships, and only eight per cent of businesses with fewer than five employees offer them.

Vocational education, however, is too important to be left to the good offices of a dedicated few. In Switzerland employer engagement is more systematic: part of the culture, a form of social contract. Surely we need something similar here?

I welcome the Government’s initiative to give financial incentives to firms to take on apprentices. But the process needs to be as accessible as possible if SMEs are to participate fully.

More employers should become involved with schools by mentoring pupils, offering them work experience and encouraging their staff to become governors. Large employers should help smaller ones by working through their supply chain to share and support apprenticeships. LEPs, Chambers of Commerce and, of course, the CBI, should help, too.

They could help organise apprenticeships at a local level, take the lead on recruitment, give advice on how to source training and help SMEs to access apprenticeships. In short, all our best intentions to provide more and better apprenticeships could flounder if employer organisations at a local level are not better coordinated and well led.

What does that mean for a small business? Take a plumber with five employees. He’s willing to take on apprentices but needs help. Where should he start? You probably have a better idea than I do, but let me suggest what I think is absolutely crucial. Networks, like the local Chambers of Commerce, should be easily accessible to employers. They need to be willing to take over the form filling, explain the funding and help find a good-quality training provider.

I challenge all employers, large or small, to look at their workforce and consider the following 3 questions:

  • Don’t you, as employers, have a moral and long-term economic imperative to train people here rather than recruit from abroad – however tempting that might be? Couldn’t you do more?
  • Second, how much do you do to make young people in schools aware of all the different types of work in your company? Have you made a sustained effort to engage with schools and colleges and let them know what opportunities you offer?
  • And finally what would it take to turn a job vacancy into an apprenticeship? It’s easy to bemoan the lack of qualified youngsters, but what are you doing to help solve that problem?


As I said at the beginning of my speech, we seem to be forever stuck on a policy roundabout when it comes to vocational education. But I also firmly believe that we have never had a better opportunity to get off it. The economy is growing and there is a cross party consensus on the importance of vocational education in general and the need for more high-calibre apprenticeships in particular.

Thank you.

Published 18 November 2014